As the Liberty football team hit the field at the Indoor Practice Facility and the adjacent outdoor practice field at Williams Stadium on Friday, there was one position that had everyone’s focus. The media that was assembled all had their cameras fixed on the quarterbacks going through reps on the first day of training camp.
Malik Willis is no longer the starting quarterback for the Flames, as he was taken in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, and Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze is actively watching the quarterbacks to see who may emerge as the leading candidate to replace Willis.
It was just two years ago that Freeze and the Flames found themselves in a similar position. Entering the 2020 season, Liberty was looking to replace four year starter Buckshot Calvert. It was two transfers, alongside a young Johnathan Bennett, that were in competition to replace one of the best quarterbacks Liberty has ever had. Auburn transfer Malik Willis was named the starter just ahead of the season opener that year, beating out Bennett and Maine transfer Chris Ferguson. Willis would then go on to turn heads over the next two seasons, not just among those within the Liberty football program, but also nationally and at the next level.
This year, there are four names fighting in camp trying to become the next signal caller for the Flames when the season opens on Sept. 3 at Southern Miss. Bennett, who served as Willis’ backup last year, is the veteran of the group, as he enters his fourth year in the program. Nate Hampton is a 6’6″, redshirt-freshman who played in one game last year. Freeze has also brought in two transfers over the past two seasons – Kaidon Salter, a former four-star rated prospect out of high school who originally signed with and spent a semester at Tennessee, and Charlie Brewer who was the starter at Baylor before transferring and starting the first three games at Utah last season.
“I say anytime you create competition in any position room is beneficial,” Freeze said following Friday’s practice. “Kids that are able to handle that and raise the level of their play are the ones that you want to go to battle with. The ones who don’t want to compete to earn something you’re probably not going to win many games. I tell recruits all the time, we’re going to recruit the heck out of you and, if it’s a quarterback, I’m going to try to out-recruit you the next year. So is everyone else. They may not tell you that. You’re going to carry 4-5 scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. You’ve got to compete every year to earn that spot. I think all of the ones in that room right now have shown signs that they are willing to compete.”
Throughout spring practice and again on Friday, Freeze cautioned that it may be some time before a starter emerges, as he doesn’t expect to name the starter until game week. The competition could also extend into the early weeks of the season.
“I really don’t think that this will really totally shake out until we play some games,” he said. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there are a lot of QBs that don’t perform their best in practice and yet when the lights come on, oh my gosh, they are a player. I’ve had that. Bo Wallace was that way. Ryan Aplin was that way. Malik was that way to a certain extent. Chad Kelly was good all the time, but you can watch some of these others practice and you think oh my gosh we’re not going to be able to throw the ball at all in a game. Then, the game starts, and this guy competes. It could be some of that. I do think it will go into the season before we kind of really know on that.”
Even when a starter is named for the season opener, that doesn’t mean the competition is over. Freeze hinted to the possibility that one guy could begin the year as starter and, if he or the team struggles, another quarterback could get an opportunity.
“If whoever gets that nod goes out there and is eight-for-eight and making the right decisions and we’re scoring points, he probably won’t lose that spot,” said Freeze. “If we’re unsuccessful, then certainly we think it is worth trying other people. I honestly think that we have four guys that could go in there and get the job done, which is a good feeling.”
While Freeze is confident that all four guys battling to be the next starter can get the job done, there is some room for improvement that he wants to see throughout camp. On Friday, with his eyes fixated on the quarterbacks, one thing stood out to him.
“I thought we leaned way too heavy on pulling runs for the RPOs, and I’ve got to get that cleaned up,” Freeze said. “I think maybe they’re just anxious to throw, but if the safety’s still at 8 to 10 yards, even though he’s in the run fit, I want us to lean to handing that ball off.
“Today we really leaned the other way, I believe. I need to watch the film. I thought from my eyes there were five, six, seven times that I understand it’s going to be a seven-man fit, but that seventh guy is still at 10 yards, our running back’s got to earn his keep some, too, and we can’t just lean toward pulling it and throwing it every time. [The safety] needs to be down in there at 5 and 4 yards for us to do that. That’s the one thing that I thought stood out from the quarterbacks is we leaned the wrong way for what I want us to be.