Liberty’s offensive line entered the 2021 season returning all five starters and the majority of its two deep from a unit that had one of the best years of recent memory for a Liberty offensive line in 2020. Expectations were high for the Flames’ to be able to dominate at the point of attack on offense, picking up huge chunks of yards on the ground and keeping the pocket clean for Malik Willis.
The Flames’ offensive line struggled this past Saturday night against Troy though, allowing five sacks. A lot of it likely had to do with all the absences the team is facing on the line. Two starters missed virtually the entire game while a couple members of the second string are banged up, as well. As the team is now preparing for Old Dominion this weekend, there are a lot of question marks surrounding the offensive line.
“We can’t give up five sacks, we just can’t do that,” said Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze. “We’ve got to find some answers and some things to help us out in that regard. We’ve got to protect (quarterback Malik Willis) better, that’s number one for our OLine, we’ve got to protect our quarterback.”
Damian Bounds, who started the season opener against Campbell at left guard, was injured against the Camels, and missed the majority of the game with a high ankle sprain. He attempted to give it a go at Troy, but he was unable to and it looked like he may have re-aggravated the injury. Jacob Bodden, who fought with Bounds for the starting spot during camp, has filled in admirably for Bounds and will continue to do so if the senior can’t go.
Starting right tackle Cooper McCaw did not make the trip to Troy as he missed practice all week with an undisclosed injury/illness. In his absence, Jonathan Graham made his first career start as he got most of the game reps at right tackle against the Trojans. Graham was also injured in the game Saturday, but he was able to return after having someone roll up on his left leg and looking like he may have injured his ankle or knee. Freeze currently lists Bounds, McCaw, and Graham all as day to day this week.
Backup center John Kourtis suffered a sprained MCL just prior to the start of the season and has yet to be able to play. There’s a chance he could be available this week. Additionally, reserve tackle Bryce Mathews is not at 100% and reserve tackle Will Buchanan has a back injury, according to Coach Freeze. In total, six out of Liberty’s top 11 offensive linemen are currently dealing with some form of ailment and their status for this week against ODU is not completely clear.
Tristan Schultz (left tackle), Thomas Sargeant (center), and Brendan Schlittler (right guard) are all healthy currently and anchor their position as returning starters. Bodden has plenty of playing experience from last season, and he should fill in admirably for as long as Bounds is injured.
This week, depending on who is healthy and able to play, there could be some young, inexperienced linemen receive their first meaningful reps in game action. At tackle, Mason Bundy or Harrison Hayes could factor into the lineup while Andrew Adair could see time at guard. Hayes and Mathews were also filling in as the backup center behind Sargeant while Kourtis has been out.
“We’re still developing that depth,” Freeze said of his offensive line group. “We’ve got some people here, they just haven’t played a lot of snaps because the guys that have been here. Unfortunately, all the guys that may be out or were out are guys with great experience. You’re just playing young guys. The good thing is we will get to get them some more reps in practice this week. I know that some of these kids aren’t going to be prepared to practice. Not that they can’t play in the game, but we will get them more reps.”
For now, the Flames are just trying to piece together the offensive line to put the best unit out there for Saturday’s game against the Monarchs.
“You would hope out of those (injured), you would hope you get a few of those back for Saturday,” Freeze said during his press conference Monday. “I really don’t know the answer to that today.”