Liberty entered training camp with a quarterback battle on its hands, and less than two weeks away from the team’s season opener at Western Kentucky, no one has solidified their position as the team’s starter.
Auburn transfer Malik Willis and Maine transfer Chris Ferguson are the top two battling it out, with the two splitting reps with the first team through the first couple weeks of training camp. That split work has continued into September with even redshirt-freshman Johnathan Bennett staking his claim to be the team’s man under center on Sept. 19 in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
“It’s getting close,” Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze said on Monday when asked if he’s ready to name a starter. “I would think it would be probably middle to late of this week where a decision will be made. Hopefully we will see what our instincts tell us right now, we hope to get confirmation of that this week and then make that decision.”
Willis is the dual-threat quarterback that joined Liberty’s program last summer. After getting his appeal denied by the NCAA to be immediately eligible, he began to work with the scout team, preparing Liberty’s defense for what it would face week to week.
Ferguson transferred to Liberty as a grad transfer in December following a successful career at Maine where he helped lead the Black Bears to the FCS Playoff semifinals in 2018.
“It’s been a great competition,” Freeze said on Monday. “I think both have strengths and both still need to be consistent in some areas.”
Freeze further elaborated that it has been a back and forth battle, with one man standing out on certain days while the other struggled and vice versa.
“Chris is a more solid pocket passer,” Freeze said. “Malik, it’s not that he’s not able to, he’s probably a little bit more inconsistent with that, but then he adds great value also in what happens when the play does break down or if you want to call quarterback runs.”
Earlier in camp, quarterback coach Kent Austin said he and Coach Freeze would evaluate each quarterback’s on field performance over a period of time and decide who has the upper hand. Now, Freeze says it’s too close to call.
“The grades are similar,” he said. “The completion percentages, production chart, turnovers, they’re all very, very similar. One day it’s up on this one some and the next day it’s this one of the three. They’re very similar. You look at the production chart from the big scrimmages we’ve had or the live periods when you’re putting the ball down on a set of chains and you’re having to function and move our offense into scoring positions hopefully, we chart all of that out and see where you are.”
Redshirt-freshman Johnathan Bennett, who served as Buckshot Calvert’s backup last year before suffering a season ending injury, has also inserted himself into the discussion.
“He’s probably as confident as anybody with our system because he’s had more reps, more snaps,” Freeze said of Bennett. “He’s confident, doesn’t seem like he’s favoring his injury at all. I wouldn’t be afraid to put him in a game either.”
Freeze doesn’t expect to enter the game at Western Kentucky with a plan to play both quarterbacks, but, if the starter is struggling after a couple series, he could envision putting the backup in to see if he could provide the team a spark.
“I believe, wholeheartedly, there are some guys who are just better on game day,” said Freeze. “I really do. I’ve just seen it. I’ve seen it over and over again.”
Freeze is hopeful the guy he picks later this week is the one to lead his team all season, but, one thing is for certain, he has a lot more options at quarterback than he did during his first season at Liberty.
Last season, the offense’s success rested squarely on Buckshot’s shoulders, especially once Bennett was injured. That won’t be the case this year, with three capable quarterbacks ready to be called on at any moment, and in a COVID-19 world, that could prove to be invaluable.
“I think we’re blessed with some good options,” said Freeze. “I think, as we turn our attention to a single game plan instead of us in a practice trying to get everything in and you don’t know what the defense you’re going to see because you’re not worried about it, you’re just trying to run a set of plays. Now, as we’re trying to get a game plan in at the middle of this week, hopefully, kind of what my gut says, will be validated.”
Whether it’s Willis or Ferguson, or even the dark-horse Bennett, Freeze hopes he has much more clarity by the end of the week.
“I think as (Coach Austin and myself) watch film, I think organically, our gut is probably leaning in the same direction as to who will get the starting nod,” he said. “Hopefully, he will produce and do well. That will probably come at the middle to end of this week. I’d say at the end of this week.”
*photo courtesy Liberty Athletics