When Hugh Freeze was hired as Liberty’s head coach in December, he said the most important hire he would make would be at defensive coordinator, calling that position the head coach of the defense.
The 2018 season is Symons’ only as a position coach at the FBS level prior to this season. His coaching stops include Harding University, Arkansas Tech, and West Georgia. He was also a defensive quality control coach for one season at Arkansas State under current Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.
It was his time as defensive coordinator from 2014-2017 at Division II West Georgia that really turned heads. During those 4 seasons, West Georgia was 40-13, including back-to-back 12 win seasons, two NCAA Division II Super Region 2 titles and a Gulf South Conference championship. Symons coached two defensive All-Americans, including the GSC Defensive Player of the Year in Dylan Donahue who has played with the New York Jets. Donahue and two other defensive players under Symons at West Georgia have made it to the NFL, very impressive for a DII school.
Symons may be young, graduating from Lindenwood University in 2008, and inexperienced at the FBS level, but he is hungry and willing to prove that he can get the job done at this level.
“Scott has done it,” Freeze said of his previous coordinator experience. “I think he’s hungry to run that side of the ball, and that’s something that gives me joy – reaching down and getting people that just need a break.”
Symons is confident his success as a coordinator at West Georgia can translate to success at Liberty.
“Football is football,” he said following Liberty’s first spring practice under the new staff this past Saturday. “I coached at the University of Memphis last year. I think there’s great offensive coordinators at the Division II level, Division III level, NAIA level, high school level. I think that’s been proven. There’s great coaches at all levels, but it’s not about me. This system has nothing to do with me. It’s about the players buying into our staff, it’s about our coaching staff. I think we have one of the most talented defensive staffs in the country, at any level. I really believe that.”
Including Symons, three of the five defensive staff members worked together at West Georgia as defensive line coach Josh Aldridge and cornerbacks coach Rickey Hunley were also on staff there.
In addition to his 4 seasons at West Georgia as defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, Aldridge also has spent time at Lindenwood and Ouachita Baptist before spending the 2018 season as defensive coordinator at Lenoir-Rhyne. Hunley was the linebackers coach and special teams coordinator under Symons at West Georgia from 2015-17. Additionally, he has coaching stops at Drake, Lindenwood, Southwest Baptist, and, most recently, at Incarnate Word in 2018 as safeties coach and recruiting coordinator.
Linebackers coach Kyle Pope comes to Liberty after two seasons as a graduate assistant at Alabama. His previous coaching stops include one season each at Presbyterian (DL), West Alabama (OLB), and Holmes Community College (DL).
“When you look at each guys’ experiences, in a short amount of time, even though we’re a younger staff, it’s been a very successful staff, the places they’ve been,” Symons said of his defensive staff.
Freeze left the hiring of the defensive staff almost exclusively to Symons.
“I let him have a huge input into who he hired over there,” Freeze said. “He needs to feel comfortable with who he’s formulating these plans with.”
The Flames are coming off a 2018 campaign where the defense ranked near the bottom of the 129 FBS teams in most defensive categories. Liberty was 117th in scoring defense, allowing 36.8 points per game, 123rd in total defense, allowing 484.8 yards per game, 116th in rushing defense, allowing 221.8 yards per game, and 113th in passing defense, allowing 262.9 yards per game.
During his 4 seasons at West Georgia, Symons’ defense gave up 17.1 points per game, 291.5 yards of total offense, 119.3 rushing yards, and 172.2 passing yards on average. Those numbers were all up significantly from the 2013 team before Symons’ arrival that allowed over 27 points per game and 367 yards of total offense.
“This season, there’s going to be highs and there’s going to be lows,” Symons said of the upcoming 2019 campaign. “It’s not like we’re going to roll out here and everything’s going to be perfect. We know that adversity is going to come.”
The new look Liberty defense will be multiple. The Flames will use a 4-man front, 3 man-front, basically any package needed to offset what the offense is trying to do.
“We’re going to have the ability to take away what people do best,” Symons said of his defensive philosophy. “That’s what we want to pride ourselves in, but at the end of the day this game is really still a very simple game. You can draw up whatever play you want, but if you don’t get the kids to run hard, if you don’t get them to play together, and you don’t get them to tackle and be tough, then it doesn’t matter (if you run) a 3-4, 4-2-5, 4-3.”
During spring practice, Symons says the emphasis will be on getting the guys to learn the new system so they know where to line up and working on developing fundamentals. He also wants to see competition and each and every position, and the depth chart is still very much a work in progress.
“Every single guy knows their job is up for the taking,” Symons said Saturday after practice. “It will be like that all the way through the spring and, quite frankly, it will continue through Fall camp. We want to get to a point, and we’re working to to a point and we addressed some of those needs in recruiting, where there is a quality 2-deep at each position. When you get (to that point), you have competition, and competition brings the best out of everybody. There are guys coming. We told (the returners) that. We are going to work to recruit the best players that we can.”