Last season’s home win over Liberty might as well be known as the Joe Reed breakout game. He was an offensive afterthought heading into it, but on that day, both of his receptions went for touchdowns and he racked up 193 kick return yards, 90 of which came on one he took to the house.
The Cavaliers are hoping for a similar performance on Nov. 23 when the Flames come to Scott Stadium for Virginia’s penultimate game of the regular season. Our 2019 Virginia football opponent preview series continues with Liberty, which welcomes former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and has an infusion of transfer talent hitting the field this fall.
New pieces on a loaded offense
Liberty’s offense ranked No. 46 nationally last season with 422.9 yards a game and that shouldn’t change this fall. The Flames return quarterback Stephen Calvert, who threw for 3,068 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago, leading receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden (71 catches, 1,037 yards, 10 TDs) and leading rusher Frankie Hickson (1,032 yards, 11 TDs).
As if that weren’t enough, the Flames have a handful of transfers expected to step in and make an impact. Hickson, in particular, is in danger of losing some carries to Maine transfer Josh Mack, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. In 2017, he led all FCS running backs with 1,335 rushing yards. Former Colorado wide receiver Johnny Huntley (6-3, 235) also is eligible after sitting last season.
The Flames also brought in three junior college transfers to beef up the defensive line and one on the offensive front.
Defensive tackles Devonte Lloyd (6-2, 305), William Green (6-6, 290) and Elijah James (6-4, 300) should add depth to a defensive line rotation in desperate need of bodies, and offensive tackle Maisen Knight (6-5, 290) should help fill the void left by left tackle Julio Lozano, who earned a rookie tryout with the New Orleans Saints.
Will defense improve?
While Liberty’s offense hit the ground running in its first year as an FBS independent, its defense didn’t make the transition look near as seamless.
The Flames ranked 123rd nationally in total defense (484.8 ypg), allowed 221.8 rushing yards a game and surrendered more than 40 points in seven of last season’s 12 contests.
The defense does return last season’s top three tacklers in safeties Elijah Benton and Isaac Steele and middle linebacker Solomon Ajayi, sack leader Jessie Lemonier and cornerback Bejour Wilson, who tied Steele with a team-high three interceptions.
The big matchup
Lemonier (6-4, 240) is far from the largest defensive end that Virginia’s offensive line will face this season, but he couples strength and speed as well as many of the top pass-rushers in the country. Last fall, he led the Flames with 10 sacks, 13.5 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles, and he was seventh on the team with 55 tackles. Virginia’s tackles are going to have to be quick on their feet to keep Lemonier out of quarterback Bryce Perkins’ face.
As of now, sophomore Ryan Nelson looks like a lock to start at left tackle again. After Penn State graduate transfer Alex Gellerstedt’s season-ending injury, 6-foot-10 sophomore Ryan Swoboda has been working with the starters at right tackle.
Virginia is 1-0 all-time after winning the first meeting in program history last season against the Flames, 45-24.
A win over the Flames would likely move Virginia to 3-0 against in-state programs with Virginia Tech coming to Scott Stadium the following week for the regular season finale. Liberty is going to become more of a player on the state’s recruiting scene in coming years, so a convincing win or loss could have ramifications beyond this season.
The Cavaliers should be heavily favored for at least the fifth straight week, but with as many offensive weapons the Flames are going to bring to Charlottesville, fans may be in store for a shootout.