James Passmore joined the Liberty roster prior to the 2014 season and spent that campaign redshirting to learn from the upperclassmen on the offensive line.
Passmore practiced with the group and saw the seniors take pride in dominating at the point of attack and opening up holes for D.J. Abnar and the rest of the running back corps to control games.
Passmore wants to enjoy that sense of pride in his final season in a Liberty uniform.
“For us as an offensive line, that’s one thing we’re harping on this year is we didn’t run the ball very well sometimes last year,” Passmore said, “and that’s one of our major points we’re hitting.”
The dynamic 2014 season capped a three-year stretch in which the Flames averaged more than 2,100 yards rushing and also enjoyed stellar passing numbers with quarterback Josh Woodrum.
In the three seasons that have followed, the Flames’ running game has taken a step back to the aerial attack. Liberty has not produced a 1,000-yard rusher and has not averaged more than 144 rushing yards per game in those three campaigns.
Flames coach Turner Gill and offensive coordinator Joe Dailey both have emphasized the running game needs to be established to take pressure off junior quarterback Buckshot Calvert after the signal caller set numerous Liberty single-season passing records last season, including most pass attempts.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Calvert said. “A lot of things we can improve on that can help us win games this year. Just equaling out our pass with the run game, I would say, maybe just attacking the run game a little more and that usually opens up the pass and play-action passes.”
The Flames rushed for 1,532 yards and averaged 4.0 yards per carry last season. The 139.3 rushing yards per game was a drop of four yards from 2016 when LU recorded the second of back-to-back seasons averaging a meager 3.6 yards per attempt.
“We were in advantageous formations and down and distances last year in the run game,” Dailey said, “but there would be times we wouldn’t hit the hole the way we needed to, and when we decide to get back to that cut, it was too late, the defense had already out leveraged us.
“A 5- to 6-yard gain turned into 2 or 3 [yards] because we were late getting to our leverage. An onus is going to be put specifically on hitting your landmarks with your eyes and your body to accelerate through the hole and not just to the hole.”
LU averaged 2,142 rushing yards between 2012 and 2014 with a pair of tailbacks — Aldreakis Allen in 2012 and D.J. Abnar in 2014 — eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark, and Des Rice nearly reached that milestone in 2013 with 967 yards.
The one common trait of those seasons has been a featured tailback, something that has eluded the Flames in the past three seasons with a committee approach. In those three years, LU is averaging 1,475 rushing yards.
The Flames are expected to go with a committee approach again this season with Frankie Hickson, Kentory Matthews, Frank Boyd and Peytton Pickett each expected to get opportunities until a clear cut primary running back is established.
Hickson has 194 of the 224 carries on the roster, while Matthews has the other 30 attempts. Pickett is coming off a 66-carry, 4.8-yards per carry season at Trinity Valley Community College, and Boyd spent last season redshirting.
“I think there’s going to be multiple guys,” Gill said, “and I think it’s all going to materialize here as time goes to see who is going to be the top one or two guys to get most of the reps, and we’ll go with what happens. We’ll take it day by day.”
Passmore is one of nine offensive linemen returning from last season’s two-deep depth chart. Michael Henderman graduated and was replaced in the rotation by redshirt freshman Cooper McCaw.
Three of last season’s linemen — left tackle Julio Lozano, center Thomas Sargeant and right guard Dontae Duff — started every game, and Ethan Crawford started 10 of 11 games and is moving to left guard this season.
The continuity of the offensive line is similar to the group from a handful of seasons ago that took pride in establishing the run, and they want to run the ball at will in the program’s first season at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“There’s an old saying, too, of you throw when you have to but run when you want to,” offensive line coach Aaron Stamn said. “If we run the ball when we want to, we’re going to be really, really good, and we throw when we have to and execute, we’ll be alright.
“If we run the football and we establish the running game and being assignment sharp with them being more physical and pressing the line, we’re going to be that much better.”