One day after the traditional February National Signing Day, Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze met with the media to discuss a variety of topics. Here is everything he had to say during the media session:
FEBRUARY SIGNING DAY WITH NO SIGNEES
“It was definitely intentional. We felt very good about the 19 that we signed in the December period. You combine that with the number of super senior that are returning, and to us there was just great wisdom in holding the remaining 6 initials for several reasons. One, we’re entering into a new world with transfer portal. Two, you got the super seniors that are returning, so you’re in all likelihood, depending on what happens between now and spring, you’re going to be somewhat over the 85. I think one of the worst things that could happen is a lot of kids come in and get discouraged, and managing budgets, numbers getting back to the 85 the next year, I like having some flexibility. Unfortunately, because of COVID and the transfer portal, I think there are a number of high school kids that are going to get hurt in this process. They didn’t get to play their senior year. Now, people like me are saying, ‘Man, I didn’t get to see them play as a senior.’ You could take a kid out of the transfer portal at a need position.”
“Our plan moving forward is certainly to keep an eye on the transfer portal. There are three positions that we would consider taking. I guess, I would never want to be put in a box, you always would take a great player, but certainly if you’re talking about just depth, we really feel really good about every place now, wouldn’t mind taking another corner, maybe another linebacker, and an outside receiver. So, if that happens, we have 3 and we would take 3 and carry them forward to the next year’s signing class. Or, it still remains to be seen what the NCAA is going to do in regards to the initial counter rule with the transfer portal. That’s a discussion that’s going to have to take place at some point.”
IS IT YOUR UNDERSTANDING THAT YOU HAVE ONE SEASON TO BE ABOVE THE 85 SCHOLARSHIP LIMIT AND BE BACK TO 85 BY THE 2022 SEASON?
“My communication is with our compliance office here and of course our administration, Michelle Jack does an awesome job in keeping us as up to date as she can. That is my belief, that is my understanding. I don’t know that I’ve seen that in writing anywhere yet that has made it official, but that is the way we’re operating is that we have one season that is the super senior COVID year that you could be over 85 but then the following year by that August it’s got to be back to 85 is my current understanding.”
YOU HAND-PICKED MALIK WILLIS AT QB, WHAT DOES HE HAVE TO IMPROVE TO GO TO ANOTHER LEVEL?
“Did you write that we hand picked him? It was a pretty good hand selection if that is accurate, but I don’t know that that’s totally accurate but we are sure are glad we have him. We got caught up on recruiting last week, this week we started watching our cut ups. It’s very easy to nit-pick quarterback’s play, but as we’re going through all of the cut ups, we’ve gotten through basically 4 base runs and 3 concepts. He’s got a lot that he can improve on. I think he will see that when we show him the cut ups we are making. We missed a lot of opportunities for quick throws in the RPO game that he just didn’t see. We’ve got to get to where we take those, what we call, gimme throws, access throws. Secondly, there were times, for whatever reason, his drop is incredibly short. He’s just not getting the depth, and our pass protections, we’re setting those protections, and those linemen believe based on the protection that we’re teaching, that on a normal three step drop from the shot gun that he’s going to be at 8 yards of depth at least. That creates a problem. We had more sacks than we would have liked this year. Some of it is on the line, backs and their protection schemes. I’m not sure if he’s concerned about what’s going on in his mind down the field on a pass play, but he cannot sacrifice his drop and that got him in some trouble in many situations. Obviously, accuracy is something we will keep working on, but if I had to pin point just from what I’ve seen thus far in cut ups, it would be the pre-snap gimme throws that we’re not taking when they add an 8th guy to the box and then his mechanics on being consistent in getting his drop right.”
HOW MUCH DOES HAVING THOSE 16 SUPER SENIORS BACK HELP IN BUILDING THE ROSTER MANAGEMENT AND DEPTH?
“I think it’s huge for obviously depth and then to have experience coming back in your O-Line and D-Line, I’m just thrilled with their decision to join us. I think it speaks for the culture this year that kids want to return and certainly didn’t have to. Proud of the fact that we graduated 16 guys at mid-year. Give credit to the academic staff for that, Kristie Beitz and her team do a great job. It’s exciting to me that we have depth coming back from players who have played a lot of snaps for us, and also I think it helps in continuing to create the culture that we want here. That’s one of the reasons they want to come back, and then you want them to pass it on to all of the new guys and continue to build it with the returners.”
IS THE SPRING PRACTICE SCHEDULE FINALIZED?
“It’s done. I went through the whole spring calendar. We are going March 1st, is our first practice. We will go every Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning. Then, the one Saturday that we are going will be March 27th. I need confirmation from Ian on this, but I believe that will be some type of open practice on that day. I’m sure some of it has to do with what the COVID protocols are at that time. That is our target to have some type of open spring practice that day. Then we finish up that following week with our remaining practices. So, it will be the month of March. There is no spring break, that’s a little different. The reason I went on and scheduled it this way, you have the 30 days allotted, we’re not using all of them, but there’s always that possibility that you miss a practice here or a practice there with test results. I want to have some time saved at the end in case that occurs.”
YOU SEEM TO LIKE PRACTICING IN THE MORNINGS
“That was my first year doing mornings in the fall, I’ve always done it in the spring, but fall I have never really done that. I’m an early morning guy. Dom loves to work our team out, that’s what they do now. I thought our team handled it really, really well. We had our best academic year, even amid the COVID, as far as GPA. I think you get up in the morning, get yourself going, I like it. I thought it was beneficial we had a lot of early kicks. If I have it my way, we will have as many of those as we can. I understand there’s times you need some night kicks too, but I love early kicks. I think our kids respond to that very well. We will continue practicing in the mornings.”
WHAT DOES JACK CURTIS BRING TO YOUR STAFF?
“The connection goes all the way back to when I took over at Arkansas State. I came to Arkansas State as the offensive coordinator for one year before becoming the head coach. That year, when I came in as OC, Jack was there. He left soon after I got there to go take a job at Memphis. So, I knew of him for a brief time there. Obviously, coaching with all those guys at Arkansas State, I heard about Jack and his strengths. Knew of him first there and then when I got the head job there a lot of our best players, Demario Davis who is one of the best linebackers in the NFL now, Derek Newton who is still playing in the NFL now. All of those guys, I started finding out, where are they from, I want some more of those. Jack had recruited all of those guys from rural Mississippi and rural Alabama. He did a heck of a job evaluating kids that didn’t get taken by other people and ended up being NFL players. I was impressed right away with his ability to evaluate.”
“Fast forward to now, as soon as Corey decided to go take the defensive coordinator job with Kane at South Alabama, my first question to Corey is, ‘Alright, tell me who is’ – I mean, your phone is blowing up with a lot of connections you have and a lot of people that would do a great job, but I really liked the chemistry that we had last year with another guy that has coordinated and coached the back end and Scott can use as a sounding board to bounce off things during the games and during practice and in game planning. So, who is that guy? I’ve got tons of young guys that I know I could go hire and they would do a great job, but is there a guy out there who is just like what we had with you Corey? And the first name off his lips was Jack Curtis.”
“I’m very slow with these hires, particularly if you’re not recruiting. I really wanted to take my time. I didn’t want to do it between the bowl and the New Year. I wanted to enjoy my time with my family and the time we had away from here before we got back. I just told Scott, you be thinking about it. Really, we only brought two people in, Jack and another very quality coach who did a great job in his interview. He’s going to be a really good coach too, but we all felt that Jack was the right fit for us. He brings a wealth of knowledge, a wealth of experience, having coached at a lot of great places and having coordinated. He’s excited. We welcome he and his family.”
“I hired Bradley Dale Peveto at Ole Miss and he and Jack married twin sisters. Our wives have already connected with their wives. He has two wonderful daughters that are 8th graders, both 8th graders. Their family will be joining us here, we are glad to have them.”
WHO DO YOU HAVE IN THE GAME SUNDAY?
“I’ve done something new this year. I have written down a 2021 growth plan for me. When I started writing it, I found out I have a lot of issues. It took me like two manila folders front and back and I’m still writing on stuff that I need to work on. That’s really what I’ve been spending my time doing. So, I really haven’t watched hardly any TV at all. Everyone, I assume, is saying that the Chiefs have the better team and probably favored, but there’s something about Tom Brady. Bruce Arians, to me, I wish I was more like him in ways. The guy just says what he’s thinking all the time. I believe I heard him say one time, ‘No risk it, no biscuit,’ or something like that. I kinda like that mentality he has. They were very impressive to me defensively in what they did at Green Bay. I’m going to go with the upset and say Brady wins another Super Bowl, he and Arians.”
I’M SURE YOU WILL BE WATCHING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM WITH YOUR FRIEND ERIC CHURCH SINGING IT?
“I did see that yesterday. He texted me, oh it’s been a couple weeks ago, and we are talking about getting together to play a round of golf some time this spring. I didn’t know he was singing it at the time, but I saw it yesterday and I shot him a text. It usually takes him about 3 days to get back to me on a text. He’s not a hostage to his phone like most people are.”
WHAT’S THE BALANCING ACT LIKE WITH BRINGING IN A GUY WHO HAS BEEN A DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR?
“Very good question. That’s always my only concern in regards to when you’re bringing in a guy who has coordinated as much as he has and that’s why I trusted Corey so much. That was my first question to Corey, ‘Who is you?’ Whose demeanor is ok riding in the second seat of the bus and doing that job with great enthusiasm and when you’re called on for information and not feeling like, ‘Man, I wish I was in the first seat,’ all the time. That was really my whole part of the interview with Jack. Obviously, I called around to find out what I could, and I trusted people like Kevin Peoples and Corey, who had worked directly with him and who I know very well, and Bradley Peveto and Pete Jenkins who I trust immensely, and all of those guys said he is humble, team guy first. So, I felt good, but I still wanted to question him on that in the interview time. Once you meet him, he’s a salt of the earth, humble guy, with great knowledge. I felt like the chemistry would be the same that we had this year with Corey.”
IS THAT THE BENEFIT IN TAKING YOUR TIME IN MAKING THE HIRE?
“Yeah. I don’t like being rushed in anything, really. I guess game day calls sometime are ok, I’m used to that, but with decisions that affect a program or my family or my life, I typically, I don’t function well feeling like I’m rushed. I feel like the older I’ve gotten, I haven’t let anybody rush me with decisions that I didn’t want to be rushed with and this was one. Scott is a little different. He’s a little younger and wants to get it done. I said, no, we’re going to wait. When I get back in the office I will have thought through everything and talked to who I needed to, and then we will proceed from there. Not having to be on the road recruiting in January certainly helps. I made a mistake one time and rushed because of that, just don’t want to do that again. We took our time and I think we got the right fit for us.”
YOU WERE QUOTED TALKING ABOUT LIBERTY JOINING A CONFERENCE, IS THAT SOMETHING YOU ARE OPEN TO AND HOW FREQUENTLY DO YOU AND IAN DISCUSS THAT?
“I think my answer to them, I believe that was the Neuheisel interview, I said, I feel quite confident that if it was right for us at the right time to sit at a table and discuss joining a conference that our administration would certainly be open to sitting at the table and having that discussion, but I also said that’s not something that I can control so I don’t worry about it, I just worry about making sure we are the best Independent football team we can be and competing with the schedule we’re given to get to bowl eligibility. So, that’s what my focus is. Ian and I do not talk about that a lot at all, but I have complete confidence and trust that if something is going on that is something we should look into, I feel very confident that Ian can handle that without me. If I need to be brought in to it, I’m sure he will. Again, I think we’re open to anything, but in the mean time my focus has to be on what is right in front of us and that is we’re an Independent football team and we’ve had good success in year 1 and 2 and I want that to continue. If that leads to us sitting at the table to join some conference that is beneficial to both parties then sure our administration would listen to that.”
PREVIOUSLY YOU ANNOUNCED THE SIGNING AS CB DURON LOWE, WHAT DID YOU LIKE ABOUT HIM?
“Just loved his tape, loved talking to him on the phone, Face Time, his attitude, his approach, he’s mature. It was a place that we needed some depth at corner. I think we definitely got better with him. Dom’s been impressed with the way he’s working in the weight room and conditioning. He’s a little out of shape. Some of these kids that didn’t have as fortunate of a season as we did, and missed a lot of time, it shows a little bit in the weight room and conditioning part of it. But we’re excited about having him.”
WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL EXPECTATIONS FOR 2021?
“It’s funny you ask that. I met with each group, finished the last group this morning, met with the defensive line, and I wanted to do it by position before we start having some team meetings. You’ve been around me long enough to know now I don’t really put quantitative numbers on what a success looks like. I’ve never done that. I just don’t like that. I don’t really get it because, especially being an Independent, every year our season structure is different. One year you may play 7 teams that on paper are as good or better than you depth chart wise. Who knows? I don’t get caught up in putting quantitative numbers on it. Our theme for this spring is to be a program that is obsessed with good habits. Well, a program is made up of people so that starts with me, the coaching staff, the players. Are we obsessed with good habits? That’s what I’m going to teach from in the month of March which is coming from the book Win the Day. My expectation is that we enhance our chasing of the standard to compete for 60 minutes on any given Saturday whatever the schedule gives us. How do we do that? We do that by if we’re obsessed with good habits, whether it’s nutrition, workouts, academics, life choices, what we think, body language, whatever it is. I told ya’ll about my growth plan, but (I have a lot) I need to do better. I want to set that tone of that because the beliefs we have will drive some behavior, and that behavior is going to give you a habit and that habit is going to give you a result. We need to start with the result and work backwards.”
“Look, last year was fun, it was awesome. It was incredible, great memories, can never take them away. I have a picture of us top 20. I have it, I’ll keep it, I’ll frame it, but there’s something about programs that can sustain that over a period of time. I don’t mean sustain 10 wins, I’m not saying that. 7 wins next year may be as good a year as 10 wins this year. That’s reality. People won’t see it that way, but I will understand that. You don’t know how good these other teams are going to be and all of that. We don’t know what all is going to happen with us, but it could be reality that we look from behind the 2021 season and say 7 games and a bowl game we had as good a season because we chased the standard that we’re setting with great habits and we got the most out of that year.”
“I don’t put quantitative numbers on it, but if you’re asking me what we have to do to remain where we want to be it starts with this spring, this group, understanding the past is the past and we must be obsessed with good habits and chasing the standard that we want and we will see what happens next year in those 60 minute games.”