It’s no secret that Liberty’s offensive line wasn’t the strength of the team last year. Allowing 52 sacks, which can’t all be attributed to the line, are hard to overlook. One of the top priorities for head coach Hugh Freeze following the conclusion of the 2021 season was to put together the pieces needed for improvement on the offensive line.
His first move was at position coach where he brought in Chris Klenakis as the offensive line coach. The veteran assistant replaced Sam Gregg who left for Southern Miss as their offensive coordinator and offensive line coach after spending three years with Liberty and Freeze.
Freeze, Klenakis, and the rest of the coaching staff then turned their attention to the transfer portal, looking for veteran linemen to help improve the team in the trenches. The Flames ended up signing several transfers to the offensive line – Cam Reddy (Colorado State), Naasir Watkins (Kentucky), X’Zauvea Gadlin (Tulsa), and Reggie Young (JUCO). All four of those transfers are currently in the two deep of the offensive line, with as many as three of them expected to start.
“He emphasizes that the onus of the offense is on us,” Watkins said of Klenakis. “The mentality of the offense is on us. If we come to work with a lunch pail mentality, we’re going to keep our heads down, we’re going to keep working, and we’re going to be tough guys, that’s going to spread throughout the offense.”
Watkins, who is originally from Laurel, Maryland, is a sixth year senior after spending his first five years at Kentucky. He redshirted in 2017 before playing in 24 games over the next two seasons as he was a second string tackle. In 2020, he only played in one game due to a knee injury. The 6’6″, 320 pound athlete would not recover from his injury in time to make an impact in 2021 before deciding to transfer.
“I finished out my degree and it didn’t seem like I would have much of a future there,” Watkins, who has a degree in pre-economics and is working on an MBA, said of his decision to enter the portal. “My head coach at the time, Mark Stoops, gave me a recommendation to Coach Freeze. They watched my film, brought me in, and I’ve been here ever since.”
The veteran Watkins is fighting for the starting left tackle spot during camp with fellow transfer Reggie Young. He says the culture at Liberty among the team and the offensive line is as good as any where he’s played.
“It’s better than probably any other team I’ve been on,” he said of the team culture. “Just the level of care that guys have from the second I got here. There wasn’t an ounce of jealousy, there wasn’t an ounce of hostility. Every single person – from the starters, to the assistant coaches, to the head coach, to my fellow linemen – have just been trying to make sure I’ve been as comfortable here and as cared for as they can. I appreciate it so much.”
One of the biggest question marks surrounding Watkins and his ability to produce for the Flames this season is his knee. He says he has worked on his strength and durability throughout the offseason and feels confident that he is ready for his final collegiate campaign.
“A lot of that comes down to working with Coach Dom,” Watkins explained. “I came from some great strength and conditioning coaches, but this guy, Coach Dom, is one of the best in the country. Just the amount of work I’ve been able to come and get in from spring time, to the voluntary workouts in May, to mandatory from June up until this point. He’s done so much for us, just training us, conditioning us, helping us to build up the muscles in my ligaments and around my knees and around my lower body. I feel as strong in my base and in my core as I’ve ever been.”
Ever since Coach Klenakis arrived in Lynchburg, he’s been preaching to his unit about working together as one. The offensive linemen have taken that challenge head on and have worked to gel as a unit both on and off the field. Klenakis wants the offensive line to set the tempo and tone for the entire offense. If they can do that, coupled with the upgrade in veteran talent on the roster, the offensive line should be the most improved unit on the team in 2022.
“We’ve got to be perfectionists,” Watkins said. “We have to keep working to get better. The second we get complacent, the second we say, ‘OK, we had this many touchdowns, good day,’ that’s when we’re dead in the water. We have to keep working. We have to keep focusing on the minute details. It’s the only way we’re ever going to do what we think we can do this year.”