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Liberty program hungry for playoffs
LU’s Mike Brown small on size, big on talent
In Danny Rocco’s five seasons at Liberty, the Flames have won at least a share of four Big South championships. They’ve won 40 games. They’ve beaten an opponent from the Football Bowl Subdivision (Ball State). But in national Football Championship Subdivision circles, Liberty is judged by what it hasn’t done: Earn a berth in the FCS playoffs.
If there’s ever been a playoffs-or-bust year at Liberty, 2011 is it. The Flames return a Walter Payton Award candidate at quarterback in Mike Brown and at receiver in Chris Summers. Another receiver, Pat Kelly, set a school and Big South record last year with 235 receiving yards against Stony Brook. The defense is anchored by a 6-foot-5 mammoth in the middle (Asa Chapman) and a secondary that’s as deep and talented as any defensive coordinator Tom Clark has ever coached.
The pressure is on at Liberty to take the next step and advance to the 20-team FCS postseason. And the easiest way to do that is to win the Big South Conference championship outright and earn an automatic berth to the playoffs. Though the Flames open the season with a tough four-game stretch featuring an FBS opponent (North Carolina State) and two 2010 FCS playoff teams (Robert Morris, Lehigh), they’ll be judged on what happens in the six games from Oct. 8 to Nov. 19.
Coastal Carolina remains the only program to have ever represented the Big South in the playoffs. Liberty wants to add its name to that list. If that doesn‘t happen, – perhaps with the greatest group of offensive talent ever assembled at LU – the 2011 season will quite likely be considered a failure.
The Flames are loaded at the skill positions. Quarterback Mike Brown and receiver Chris Summers are Walter Payton Award candidates, and the other three receivers (Pat Kelly, Ervin Garner and B.J. Hayes) are all capable threats. The running game is deep and experienced, and the return of Aldreakis Allen will give a power complement to the speed game of Sirchauncey Holloway. The only question is how quickly an offensive line breaking in four new starters comes together.
As long as he gets healthy, mammoth defensive tackle Asa Chapman will be the anchor of a defensive front that’s breaking in two new starters who played significant minutes last year (Greg Schuster and Cory Freeman). The secondary is loaded, and two FBS transfers will play huge roles. Cornerback Walt Aikens (Illinois) shut down Summers at times during the spring, and Ryan Ayers (Georgia Tech) has come in and won the job at free safety. The biggest question mark: Liberty’s inside linebackers. Redshirt freshman Nick Sigmon and sophomore Scott Hyland have talent, but little in the way of experience.
The Flames have the best kicker in the nation in Matt Bevins, a two-time All-American. Punter Mike Larsson is a four-year starter and long snapper Richard Wright is back after learning on the fly last season. Liberty has options in the kick return game. Expect running backs Holloway, Allen and Korrey Davis to all get looks there. Hayes was voted to the preseason All-Big South team as a punt returner.
“I think there is a sense of urgency. Coming up short these last three or four years has been tough. But our thing is that we just have to focus on one thing at a time, one play at a time, one day at a time. If we do that and take care of business each week and let everything else take care of itself, I think we’ll put ourselves in a better situation.” – Liberty QB Mike Brown
Liberty has had one of the nation’s best offenses in each of the last two seasons, and with the glut of skill players returning, those numbers will only get better. And there’s a sense of urgency at LU. If the Flames don’t finally break through and make the playoffs this season, with the collection of offensive talent on hand, will they ever? The what-if questions will be put to rest with a perfect run through the Big South schedule post-Thanksgiving football at LU for the first time ever. Bottom line: 9-2, 6-0 Big South.
Three keys to the season
1) Development up front. The Flames are inexperienced on both sides of the line, as they return just one starter on the offensive line (guard Malcolm Boyd) and on starter on the defensive line (nose guard Asa Chapman). LU offensive line coach Blaine McCorkle said superior chemistry may make up for the lack of experience on his side of the ball, and defensive line coach Levern Belin is looking for big things from Greg Schuster, Cory Freeman, Paco Varol and Francis Bah.
2) Tight focus. The Flames have been caught looking too far ahead in the past, and it showed in rough performances at Presbyterian in 2008, Stony Brook in 2009 and Coastal Carolina in 2010. It’s a cliché, but QB Mike Brown said that a one-game-at-a-time approach is a must if the Flames are to finally reach the postseason.
3) Survive the early schedule. Liberty is playing its toughest schedule in the Danny Rocco era, as it will face an FCS team coming off a bowl win (N.C. State), a playoff team (Robert Morris), a traditional FCS power (James Madison) and the Patriot League favorite (Lehigh) in the first four weeks. This is an experienced group that’s up to the challenge, and anything less than a 2-2 start will be a bad sign for a team that has aspirations of not only making the playoffs, but making a push toward Frisco once it gets there.
By the numbers:
53 - Receptions Chris Summers needs to break Liberty’s school record for career catches, 176 set by Pat Nelson from 1988-91. Summers caught 76 passes last season.
4 - Touchdown receptions Summers needs to break Kelvin Edwards’ school career record of 22, set from 1982-85. Summers caught 15 TDs last season.
268 - Career points for kicker Matt Bevins. He already holds the LU career records for kicker scoring, field goals (54) and field-goal attempts (69). He needs 24 extra points for the career record in that category.
5 - Offensive categories in which Liberty ranked in the top 10 nationally last season: passing efficiency (ninth), total offense (second), scoring offense (third), first-down offense (first) and passing offense (seventh).
12 - Consecutive Big South home wins for Liberty, which last lost a league home game on Oct. 21, 2006.
By: Chris Lang, The News & Advance