Henry Chibueze was part of the first signing class for Liberty after the football program made the announcement it was moving to the FBS as an Independent. Coming in as part of the Class of 2018, Chibueze was one of the largest signees of that class, both literally and figuratively.
At 6’3″, 320 pounds during his senior year, Chibueze was a three-star rated prospect out of Woodbridge High School in Woodbridge, Virginia. He was one of the highest rated prospects of the class and in the program’s history at the time with offers from East Carolina, James Madison, North Carolina, Temple, and Virginia and joined the team as an offensive lineman.
Most expected him to come in and push for playing time up front on the offensive line immediately. Maybe he would need to redshirt one season, but then he would be immediately thrust onto the two-deep, many thought. That wasn’t the case though.
He broke his fibula during the final quarter of the final game of his high school career, forcing him to miss seven months as he rehabbed. During that time, Chibueze got out of shape. He ballooned to 350 pounds by time he showed up at Liberty as a true freshman. During his freshman year, he continued to gain weight and weighed as much as 365 pounds.
Chibueze redshirted in 2018, Liberty’s first at the FBS level and the final season under former head coach Turner Gill. He only saw limited playing time in the season finale against Norfolk State that season. When the new coaching staff took over, Chibueze was buried on the depth chart on the offensive line. Midway through the 2019 campaign, new Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze had an idea with Chibueze – to move him to the defensive line.
“That was 100% Coach Freeze’s move,” Liberty defensive coordinator Scott Symons said of moving him from the offense to the defense. “I did not see that one. I was coaching the DBs at the time, so it wasn’t something that was even in my wheelhouse of thought. I really don’t think any of us knew how good he could be. Coach said, ‘Let’s try him here. He could be talented.'”
Chibueze was no stranger to the defensive line as he played on both sides of the ball growing up playing football. He was actually excited to play on the defense as it gives him a chance to make plays and get after the quarterback. Part of the move was due to a defensive lineman quitting in the middle of the 2019 season. Chibueze was originally put there temporarily for scout team. When the coaching staff saw what he could do, they thought it was best to move him there permanently.
Just making the move to the defensive line, Chibueze still had a long way to go to see consistent playing time. He ended up playing sparingly in three games near the end of 2019, but the coaching staff could see his potential immediately even beginning with his first practice with the team at defensive line.
“At that point, he had so far to go as far as getting his weight down in order to play D-Line. I remember Coach Aldridge showing me the first day on the sled and him hitting the sled – the twitch and the pop and the hands and the athletic ability.”
He had the talent, but with his weight there was no way Chibueze could be a consistent contributor for the Flames. He met with Liberty strength coach Dominic Studzinski and Director of Sports Nutrition Danielle Gillen to develop a game plan where he could get in shape and possibly provide something for the Liberty defense.
“I don’t mean this in any way but just what it was,” Freeze said of Chibueze and where he was when the new coaching staff arrived. “To say he was a little overweight, it was a lot.”
It was a meeting with Coach Symons that helped get Chibueze on track, both mentally and physically.
“Coach Symons sat me down and said, ‘You’re a very talented player, it’s obvious,'” Chibueze explained. “‘We see that, but there’s no way you can possibly play a full game at that weight. There’s no way it’s going to happen.’ He told me get down to 330 and we’ll talk.”
That’s when Chibueze went to work. It wasn’t an overnight process, as it took him over a year to get into the shape he need to be to contribute on defense. His work started to show during the 2020 season when he began to move onto the two-deep on the interior of the defensive line behind Ralfs Rusins and Elijah James. He played in all 11 games last year and finished with 17 tackles, but he still had work to do to get to his top level.
This summer, the coaching staff started glowing about Chibueze as he was pushing to be one of the team’s best defensive lineman and for a starting job. Not only did he get below the goal of 330, he surpassed that goal and entered the season at 305 pounds, dropping a total of 60 pounds. He made his first career start in the season opener against Campbell, and finished the game with two tackles and a quarterback hurry. This past Saturday night at Troy, Chibueze had the best game of his young career with a career high six tackles while recording his first career sack.
“You could see the athletic ability (when he moved from the O-Line), but when he decided to change his attitude, when he decided to make getting his weight and size to play the position and doing what he needed to do to control that,” Symons said. “We already knew he was really athletic and dynamic, but now, where he can play at that weight, I think that’s a credit to him. I think that’s a credit to Coach Aldridge and Coach King-Williams and the job that they’ve done working with him. But, I think ultimately, he had to make that choice and hold himself accountable to give himself this opportunity. He’s very talented. We’ve known that all along, it was just wanting to see the consistency and him put it all together. I think we’re starting to see that now, and, as he continues to grow and develop, it’s just going to get better and better.”
Moving forward, Chibueze says he has moved from weight loss to maintaining his current weight around 305-310 and continue to build muscle mass. Whether he starts or not, he is playing as many snaps, if not more, than any other defensive tackle. The transformation he has made in a relatively short amount of time is remarkable.
“I was walking with him at the hotel the other day and I actually asked him, ‘Man, tell me what has changed since we all got here and started this journey.’ He said, ‘My whole lifestyle has changed, from nutrition, to the way I see things, to the way I work.’ That’s rewarding to hear those things and then it’s doubly rewarding to hear him say those things but then to also have the type of game that he had and I think he will continue to have. It started with him buying into, ‘I want to make a change and I’m going to trust someone to help me do that.’ You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Danielle and to Dom and their staff and Josh for bringing him along to this point.”
Chibueze says he’s just getting started and is looking forward to continuing to improve and get better. In just two games this season, he’s already made his first career start and recorded his first career sack. At his current rate of progression, the sky is the limit, and he says that first sack is the first of many to come.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Chibueze said of his play so far this season. “A lot of work put in, but I’m finally here and I’m here to stay.”