Liberty’s 2022 spring practice is in the books. The Flames wrapped up its spring season on Saturday with the annual spring game on a chilly morning in Williams Stadium before the 15th and final practice of the spring on Monday. Life after Malik Willis has begun and there are many questions throughout the roster and position groups heading into the 2022 season.
The Flames rolled out a combination of Johnathan Bennett, Charlie Brewer, Kaidon Salter, and Nate Hampton at quarterback, all of whom are expected to compete for the starting job this fall. There are unknowns as to who will the offense’s top playmaker and clear depth concerns at wide receiver.
Transfers Cam Reddy, Naasir Watkins, and Reggie Young have provided the offensive line a boost, but new OL coach Chris Klenakis must replace three starters with unproven talent. The defense under new co-coordinators Josh Aldridge and Jack Curtis dominated the spring game and there are some clear takeaways and positives. The defensive line seems poised to be one of Liberty’s strongest position groups and Aakil Washington could have a breakout season moving to linebacker.
Below are 10 things we learned from Liberty’s spring practice and spring game.
TALENT AND DEPTH AT QUARTERBACK
Coming out of the 2021 season, everyone knew the biggest question mark this offseason was going to be at quarterback and who would replace Malik Willis. The Flames have had a four-man battle throughout the spring and will continue to do so going into training camp. Johnathan Bennett, Charlie Brewer, Kaidon Salter, and Nate Hampton all have their own unique skills and strong suits they bring to the team.
“That thing’s going to go into game week,” Freeze said after the spring game. “I just think it will go into game week. I think all four have had good days and all four have had bad days. I do think I’m cautiously optimistic. I think we will have several ready that can perform.”
Bennett has been in the program longer than any of the others. Brewer has the playing experience factor. Salter is the most dynamic athlete with perhaps the greatest upside. Hampton has a strong arm but can also move well especially for his big frame.
DEFENSIVE LINE THE MOST TALENTED GROUP
Liberty’s most talented (and deepest) position group right now is the defensive line. Durrell Johnson and Stephen Sings at Bandit, TreShaun Clark and Khristian Zachary at defensive end, Kendy Charles and Henry Chibueze on the interior, and Dre Butler and Chris Boti providing depth behind them.
It’s a tall, strong, powerful group, and when you throw in talented true freshman Bryce Dixon and Jay Hardy, as well as others that could factor into the rotation, new defensive line coach Jeremy Garrett has a number of guys he can trust to rotate in and out.
“I think our front is a talented front and we’re deep,” said Freeze.
DEEPER AT LB THAN BEFORE
Over much of the past several seasons, Liberty has been incredibly thin at linebacker. Two or three guys played 90% of the snaps at linebacker. The Flames relied on graduate transfers to help build the level of talent up in the room. Guys like Anthony Butler, Storey Jackson, and Rashaad Harding all proved to be valuable pieces for Liberty’s defense as it moved to the FBS.
Now, the Flames have been able to build depth primarily through “program guys.” Guys that have been around the program and system for a few years. Tyren Dupree, Jerome Jolly, and Carl Poole are all veterans that have been around for some time and can factor into the rotation this year. Throw in Ahmad Walker, who spent much of his true freshman campaign in 2021 as a starter, and Aakil Washington, who has moved to linebacker from devensive end, and there is more depth than Liberty has had at linebacker before.
All of those names and we haven’t mentioned possibly the best linebacker on the team this fall in JUCO transfer Mike Smith, Jr. He could grow into a player with the amount of production the Flames have seen from the previous linebacker transfers.
AAKIL WASHINGTON MOVES TO LB
As mentioned above, Aakil Washington spent most of the spring at linebacker. He suffered an injury early in the spring and was limited for the duration. The entire reason behind the move is to make sure the defense has its best players on the field as many times as possible.
Over the past two years, Washington has developed into a pass rushing specialist at defensive end. He’s played behind Durrell Johnson and TreShaun Clark, getting much of his playing time on obvious passing downs. Now, in 2022, Washington will have the ability to continue to use his special skills of causing havoc in opponents’ backfields while also getting to be on the field more.
CJ DANIELS TORE HIS ACL
On the first day of spring practice, wide receiver CJ Daniels suffered an injury and it was a serious one. Coach Freeze later reported that it was a torn ACL. Daniels has developed into one of the top receivers on the team. Last year, he recorded 37 receptions for 629 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Daniels can play both on the outside and as a slot receiver, and the Flames will miss his playmaking abilities. Freeze has said that he hopes to have Daniels back by week one. We will have to wait and see when training camp opens how his recovery has gone during the summer.
DEFENSE HOPING TO ‘SPREAD THE STRESS’
Under Hugh Freeze and previous defensive coordinator Scott Symons, Liberty’s defense has been ranked among the top 25 defenses in the country the past couple of seasons. Symons has moved on to SMU and the Flames have promoted Josh Aldridge and Jack Curtis to co-coordinator roles.
This spring, both Aldridge and Curtis, have talked about the changes they are installing on the defensive side of the ball. While most of the concepts will be the same as under Symons, one thing that Curtis emphasized was that the Liberty defense will be looking to ‘spread the stress’, most notably on the corners by not leaving them on an island so frequently.
DAE DAE HUNTER SHOULD HELP IMPROVE RUN GAME
Under Freeze, the Flames have brought in a transfer running back each of the past two seasons. Last year, it was TJ Green, and he proved to be a solid back as part of a three-man rotation. This year, Liberty turned to Hawaii transfer Dae Dae Hunter.
This spring, Hunter proved that he can be a plug and play type guy as the Flames move forward without Joshua Mack. Quarterback Malik Willis has been the team’s leading rusher each of the past two years, and now Liberty will look to their running backs to help pave the way in the run game.
Coach Freeze has been able to use the transfer portal to help bolster the Liberty roster the past couple of years. That continues to look to be a key piece in the Flames’ recruiting arsenal moving forward.
Look around the depth chart and at nearly every position group this spring and there are new transfers taking valuable reps. Dae Dae Hunter at running back. Charlie Brewer at quarterback. Caleb Snead at wide receiver. Cam Reddy, Naasir Watkins, and Reggie Young on the offensive line. Austin Henderson at tight end. Dre Butler on the defensive line. Mike Smith, Jr. at linebacker.
It looks like Freeze has found some gems once again via transfers and Liberty’s 2022 team will look much deeper because of it.
PROMISE ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Despite losing three starters on the offensive line, Hugh Freeze seems encouraged by the growth and development of the offensive line group this spring.
Transfers Cam Reddy, Naasir Watkins, and Reggie Young should all make immediate contributions. Add them to the returners Jacob Bodden, Brendan Schlittler, and Cooper McCaw, and new OL coach Chris Klenakis has the beginning stages of a revamped unit.
Freeze mentioned the improvement of Chase Mitchell, John Kourtis, and Brian Hannibal as additional players that add depth to the offensive line group.
REMAINING QUESTIONS THROUGHOUT OFFENSE
The departure of Malik Willis was going to make people question Liberty’s offense heading into the 2022 season. Who’s going to replace him? Will the quarterback be good enough to at least make the Flames offense a solid unit? Beyond quarterback, the spring has revealed even more questions at other offensive position groups for the Flames heading into 2022.
Who can be solid and consistent receivers? Can that position stay healthy? Will the offensive line be able to protect and block for a new starting quarterback? Does Liberty have a surefire running back who can consistently make plays and get the tough yards?
Can a viable threat in the passing game at tight end emerge? There are a lot of question marks entering the offseason for the Liberty offense.