Despite not having any signees on the traditional February signing day, there was plenty to talk about when Liberty head football coach Hugh Freeze met with the media on Wednesday. Among the topics discussed included his 2022 recruiting class, which includes several transfers added since the December signing date, his new look coaching staff, and Malik Willis as he prepares for the NFL Draft.
Here is everything he had to say during this media availability.
HOW MUCH HAS YOUR EARLY FBS SUCCESS HELPED WITH RECRUITING?
“Everything starts with having culture first. You can have culture and still not win. I think you add culture with having some winning seasons, then you are on your way to building some consistency of improvement. Like I’ve always said, I don’t think improvement is necessarily judged by your win-loss record, particularly when you are Independent. I do think our ability to compete should be the standard that we’re chasing and that involves both culture and both talent.”
“There’s no question and no argument, I don’t think anyone could watch from the time we got here to the time now and say we haven’t improved the talent level. I think that is resulting in some wins and winning helps recruiting all the time. There’s no substitute for helping recruiting more than winning. We can be the nicest, kindest, best recruiters, but if you’re not winning games it’s doubly hard. Winning certainly helps recruiting. I think we’re starting to see that.”
“When we go out now, we’re known. Year one we were not known. People know us now and know that, if they follow football, they are somewhat complimentary to our program right now. We walk in schools and we’re welcomed in those schools.”
“Winning has helped that. Moving into a conference I think is just another great step on this journey to where now it’s not only the standard is competing to be bowl eligible and going to win a bowl game. The standard now will shift to more tangible – we want to compete for a conference championship. Whatever that leads to, great, but our focus will shift and we want to win the conference.”
“In this climate of college football transitioning into expansion of conferences and talk of expanding playoffs and all those things, I think the prudent and wise step was for us to join a conference. I lean on Ian a lot for that knowledge because I don’t have all the details of how it affects every program. I don’t understand all of that, but if he felt good about it, I certainly did.”
“I do wish there would be a commissioner over all of college football that would organize the conferences a little better, but that’s just my take on it. I think you could really create some economic positives for a lot of regional schools and help athletic programs a lot, but that’s probably a wish. So, I’m thankful for the fact that we were invited to Conference USA, and I appreciate this opportunity that is coming our way. Ready for it get here.”
DO YOU TALK ABOUT ROSTER MANAGEMENT WITH YOUR COACHING COLLEAGUES?
“No, there are certain ones that we talk openly. I was with a bunch of those Monday night as we went down to spend time with the Georgia high school coaches that made the playoffs. It’s an event we like to go to, and everyone that has a good program is there. I spent some time talking with some really good coaches in this profession, and I think everybody is in the same boat. We are uptight about how this is all going to continue to shake out. You are hopeful that your program doesn’t get hit with some mass changes with all the things that are going on. You may not have the capability of replenishing those changes. It’s definitely a different, unsettling time for coaches trying to manage rosters. You’ve got to build relationships. We work hard at that, but even that’s not a guarantee in today’s world if a kid’s going to stay with you. It’s some uncertain things with roster management. I don’t think anybody has the blueprint to it.”
ON DRE BUTLER’S POTENTIAL
“We’re going to be who we are. I’m not going to treat him any differently than I treat anyone else. Coach Dom is going to have the same expectation for him that he has for everyone else. It’s many times I’ve been told that this kid is super-talented, but his desire to compete, I actually was told that by several people on Malik Willis. I have to trust my eyes and then trust our program. Are we going to be 100% successful in every kid we take at maximizing their potential? No, but when you have one that has the potential like a Dre has, and he’s a good kid, I have no idea what’s happened in other programs with him or other kids. I’m just glad we’re getting the opportunity, and I’ve been very straight with him and others. He’s been straight with me. He knows what he needs to improve on. He knows what our expectations are. Hopefully he can meet us 50% on each side and get him to his potential.”
WOULD YOU LIKE TO DISCUSS YOUR RECENT STAFF CHANGES?
“Yeah, we got quite a few new ones. (OL) Coach Klenakis, ton of experience, been really, really impressed as we’re going through all of our cut-ups right now, of his knowledge and things he thinks we might should consider changing, doing different, techniques. I think he is a technician and excited about him.”
“(DB Coach) Darius Eubanks I think is a rising star in this profession. It was fun to watch him at the Georgia clinic, all the people that just gravitate to him in a state that is really important to us in recruiting.”
“(DL Coach) Jeremy Garrett, I’ve loved him for years. He’s one of mine, I feel like. I’ve always wanted to hire him when I got a chance, just didn’t know if I could convince him to leave the league, the NFL. Thrilled to have him, what a great mentor and coach he will be.”
“(Assistant Football Strength Coaches) Chris Terry and Bob Marco in the strength, with Coach Dom, one from FIU, one from Rice. Really impressed with both of those guys. Gotten to spend, probably, more time around them than normal because they go to church with us on Sunday mornings and sit right on our pew with us. Really impressed with both of those guys.”
“(Defensive Analyst) Robert Bala, I think is a huge addition to us, who was defensive coordinator at Southern Utah. I’ve been sitting more in the defensive rooms here in the last week than normal just because I want to hear what we’re changing, what we’re doing. He is sharp. He’s got great knowledge. He’s going to really do a great job for Coach Aldridge and Coach Curtis of advanced scouting and be able to get a jump start on the next week.”
“(Grad Assistant – Defense) De’Von Brown, great addition at GA there on the defensive side. Nigel Madison, he’s our GA that just replaced Vontrell who moved to an on the field spot which we congratulate Vontrell on that also. Kyle Robison is a new video graduate assistant from Arkansas.”
“Coach Aldridge and Coach Curtis being co-defensive coordinators, it’s a little new for me. They are working well together. Promoted Dom to assistant head coach. Jordan Cantrell to senior defensive quality control. (Eric) Ponio moved over to senior offensive quality control. (Matt) Bevins moved up to Chief of Staff. CJ Holden is Director of Ops. Danielle Gillen is the Director for Football Nurtition. Kennedy Harvey has been promoted to Director of Recruiting Operations.”
“Jovon Hubbard has been moved over to Bevins’ old role. He’s really our player engagement. He’s in charge of helping with their life, of our players, and NFL liaison. As I went to Mobile yesterday, Jovon, I was impressed with how many of the NFL scouts, they gravitate and love Jovon. He’s doing a good job.”
“We promoted Olivia Mock to player relations coordinator to help Jovon with our current players here. Ethan Johnson is Director of Recruiting. Tim Baggett is Director of Scouting. We will announce a hire that I have already made soon for our Director of Personnel which I am really, really excited about. I have worked with him before and think it’s an absolute home run.”
HOW DO YOU ENVISION THE CO-DC’S ROLE PLAYING OUT?
“We’re constantly talking through. Jack will be in the booth. Josh will be on the field. We’re not going to change, it will be the same dynamic, the same setup as it was with that. Exactly who’s going to call what will be arranged in the game plan. I trust both of them. They have the personalities that doesn’t have ego. They want what’s best for our program, our kids. Ultimately, there has to be a final say that they can come to, and if they can’t then I will be the final say, but that needs to be done the week of the game on how we’re approaching each situation and then who has the final say in that situation between those two so it doesn’t get to me. Those are still things we will have to work through, but really impressed thus far with the way they are working together.”
IN MOBILE YESTERDAY WITH MALIK WILLIS, HOW DO YOU THINK HE DID IN PRACTICE AND HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS WEEK FOR HIM?
“Truthfully, I didn’t get to see much practice at all because I was in the suites with the general managers from suite to suite to suite. I wish I could have seen. I did see at first, and it was obvious to me, that his arm strength and velocity on the football, I thought, by far was the best there. Then, they sweeped me up to the suites. I met with four different teams in their suites with their general managers, coaches, and scouting personnel. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see a ton of practice because those meetings took most of the practice, but our other coaches were there. They thought he did really, really well. He thought he did well after practice when we got to visit.”
“I think he just needs to be himself. I do think, from talking to those teams, that this is a big week. In their words, probably more so than any recent memory they have. Typically they would feel like there are one or two guys that come into the senior bowl pretty well declared as this is the order. I think this year is pretty wide open for what is the order.”
“I think everyone would agree Malik is the best athlete in the draft. I think this Saturday will help start formulating, I don’t think it’s an end all be all situation, but I do think it starts formulating in people’s minds kinda not only who is the best athlete but who is separating themselves to be maybe the best quarterback in this draft.”
“Obviously, teams are different and you do different things. You try to sign people that can play to your strength. There’s no question, I’ve been to that day many times. I’ve never had it quite like it was yesterday, it’s an important decision obviously for those NFL teams. I can tell that their interest in Malik is absolute genuine and real by the time that I spent with them yesterday.”
WHAT DATE ARE YOU GOING TO START SPRING PRACTICE?
“March 4th, I believe. Is that a Friday? We start on the first Friday in March, I think it’s the 4th. We will do five practices. We will do that Friday, Saturday, and the next Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and then spring break. We will get five in prior to spring break, and then 10 after spring break, finishing I believe on April 9th with, not sure what we’re calling it, we will call it the spring game. Ya’ll know how those go. We will have our stadium spring practice on April 9th. We will try to formulate some type of competition for sure, I’m not sure what it will look like yet.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE STADIUM UPGRADES THAT ARE COMING?
“Love it. Love the fact that we continue to have vision, that we continue to pursue ways engage our fans to let them know we appreciate their support. Appreciate our administration for always looking at ways to advance our program and to make it a better experience for all involved. I’m excited about any time we are announcing that we are doing more things. It’s usually a good sign.”
WHEN YOU RECRUITED MALIK FROM AUBURN, DID YOU THINK HE COULD TURN INTO WHAT HE HAS BECOME?
“No. Did not. I don’t really do well with the fantasy world or the unknown. There was no indication. I had no, really, sample size that would make me feel like I could tell him in that time frame, ‘Hey, you’re going to be an NFL draftee.’ I don’t think anyone in their right mind could assume that. He hasn’t been on the field in the college game for any significant snaps, maybe to zone read a play here and there, but nothing significant. We were just trying to get a guy in here that could help us win football games that I knew was a dual-threat and a great kid. We got that in Malik.”
“Then, obviously, after year one, then you start thinking, it’s more than just us winning games, he might have a future at this deal. We quickly learned in year one that he’s got a chance. We were right and he’s got a chance and an opportunity. I don’t know what that looks like for the Draft yet. It will start developing itself throughout all the interviews, and all the workouts, and Pro Day, combine, all of that will sort itself out, but the great thing is we can take great pride and comfort that we helped him achieve a dream. We helped develop him.”
“I told all of those teams yesterday, and I believe this, I don’t know that I could describe Malik in any other way, as far as his football part, we could talk about his humility and his confidence and how it’s rare that kids like him have that, but football-wise, I don’t know that I can describe it any better than he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He’s only played the game at this position for two years. When they would ask me questions about can he, I believe he can do everything, but does he do everything great right now, no, but it’s because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”
“It was like yesterday, they were putting him under center, every play that his staff was coaching him, and I’m fine with that if that’s what you want to do, but I told one team, they kinda chuckled and really didn’t have a response, I said I watched the NFL playoffs and I didn’t see anybody under center. I don’t know why ya’ll are asking him to get under center. Maybe ya’ll should change a few things and put him in the gun sometimes. But when they’re asking those things – can he, can he, can he, yes, yes, yes he can, but he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”
“I think he can do whatever they ask him to do with enough practice. They’re not limited on the times that they get to spend with him like we are. I’m confident they see that if they spend anytime with him. No, I had no idea at that time that we would be sitting here having this conversation.”
DID YOU NOTICE IF MALIK HAS BULKED UP ANY OR DOES HE LOOK THE SAME SINCE THE LENDING TREE BOWL?
“If the last time I had seen him was the Lending Tree Bowl, I would say yes, but I spent two times with him. I was recruiting in Atlanta the last week we had out, and we got together one of those nights and just drilled ball on how are you going to answer these questions, how do you get away from using our verbiage here and translating it to the NFL. Trying to help him be prepared. So, I saw him that night, so I had already seen that he had bulked up even more.”