For the first time in program history, Liberty has started three consecutive seasons with a 4-1 record or better through the first five games of the season. This might be the best job head coach Hugh Freeze has done in the early part of the season considering the Flames have dealt with injuries to their top two quarterbacks.
“To this point, it has been quarterback by committee,” said Freeze. “Some of it has been in the middle of games, several of them, have been in the middle of the games which is uncomfortable for a play caller. I’ve never really experienced a season at quarterback and calling plays, quite like this year so far, but it’s part of the growing process.”
Charlie Brewer, after transferring from Baylor and Utah, was named the starter in training camp heading into the season opener at Southern Miss. He lasted just two series, completing three of four passes for 18 yards while also rushing for 13, before suffering a broken hand just below the thumb on his right, throwing hand.
A player with over 10,000 career passing yards, Freeze and the Flames hoped it would be Brewer that could help offset the loss of third round NFL Draft pick Malik Willis. He was expected to miss 5-8 weeks from the time of his injury on Sept. 3. That timeline would have him returning to action as soon as this week against UMass or following Liberty’s bye week against Arkansas. Brewer got his pins out and cast off when he went to the doctor on Wednesday.
“He’s not quite ready,” Freeze said of Brewer’s status on Thursday. “He did get his cast off. He started his hand therapy this week. He will have to do that hard the next few weeks in hopes that he can get back pretty quick.”
Johnathan Bennett was Brewer’s backup going into the season and was the first quarterback Freeze went to after Brewer suffered the injury. Bennett has had times this season where he has been a serviceable quarterback for the Flames, but he has struggled with consistency. He has completed 27 of 57 passes for 287 yards, 3 touchdowns and 4 interceptions to go along with one rushing touchdown this year. Bennett has started one game, a win for Liberty over Akron, and helped lead the team to a win over Old Dominion last week after entering the game at halftime.
“His execution from being in our program for four seasons now it’s not so much the decision making, he usually knows what to do, it’s just the consistency and the execution of it,” Freeze said of Bennett. “I thought last week, in the second half, I thought his execution was good. Hopefully that gives him confidence going into this game to do the same. I believe JB will know a large percentage of the team what should happen, now it’s just a matter of being consistent and the execution of it like he was last week. I’m optimistic, cautiously, that hopefully we see that same execution Saturday.”
When the offense was struggling at Southern Miss with Bennett at quarterback, Freeze went to the redshirt-freshman Kaidon Salter who was dynamic and helped lead the team to a win. Salter would then go on to start at Wake Forest, nearly leading Liberty to an upset win over a top 25 team. Following that game, Salter has been limited by a groin injury, having him miss the next game against Akron and forcing Freeze to pull him at halftime this past week at Old Dominion. Salter has completed 50 of 91 passes for 778 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions while also rushing for 211 yards and 2 additional scores.
“At some point, I believe that Kaidon Salter is going to become a really, really good quarterback,” Freeze said following the game at Old Dominion this past week. “It’s coming. He’s just young. I got too negative on him, but he was just doing some crazy things and he was not feeling well. He’s not well. He can’t move right now and that’s got his mind messed up. We’ve got to get back and see if our trainers can get him well for our second half of the season.”
We have also seen Nate Hampton in limited capacity. He’s the team’s quarterback in the thoroughbred package when the Flames are focusing on running the ball and using the quarterback in designed run plays. The 6’6″ redshirt-freshman has only attempted one pass, an incompletion, to go with his 23 rushing yards.
It is unsure the health of Salter this week and if he will be able to go when the Flames play at UMass. Liberty is a three plus touchdown favorite against the Minutemen and will be another big favorite next week against Gardner-Webb. This would be a perfect time to try to get Salter back to full strength before the back half of the schedule when Liberty faces the likes of BYU, Arkansas, and Virginia Tech.
“We will have to see how this week goes with him health wise,” Freeze said of Salter on Monday. “He wants to play, but I want him to be ready to play. He had good treatment yesterday and felt better, but we will see how the week progresses. I have confidence in the others that we can win football games with them. JB was really solid in the second half. Nate has not had a full chance to really see what he would do yet, but I’m confident. We’ve got to play with who we have. If Kaidon is healthy, great. If he’s not, then next man up and let’s try to figure out what’s the best play for those guys.”
We may not know who will start at quarterback for the Flames this week against UMass, and it will likely be a week-to-week discussion as both Salter and Brewer attempt to get back on the field following their injuries. Still, regardless of who has been lined up at quarterback for Freeze and Liberty this season, the team has still been able to find success.
Freeze has seen plenty of success during his time as a head coach. He had a 12-1 season with Lambuth at the NAIA level. He helped guide Arkansas State to a Sun Belt Conference championship in one season at the helm. Freeze then led Ole Miss to four straight bowl games including a win in the 2016 Sugar Bowl. Since his time at Liberty, he has guided the Flames to three straight 8+ win seasons and three straight bowl victories, including a 10-1 campaign in 2020 that saw the program ranked in the top 25 for the first time in school history. All of that success, but guiding this team to a 4-1 record to this point in the season while utilizing four different quarterbacks may be one of his best accomplishments.
“I said back in fall camp I felt like we had four guys that could contribute to the football team,” Freeze said. “I think that has proven to be true. Give credit to Kent Austin also for being able to adjust from week to week and help coach them individually within the game plan that I really decide I like. It’s a group effort, but they have all proven to have great value for our team.”