After several years of building depth and increasing the talent level on the defensive line, Liberty finally has a unit up front that could be the leading unit on the defense.
Durrell Johnson transferred into the program from a Junior College prior to the start of the 2020 season, and he was able to fill in admirably for the loss of Jessie Lemonier who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers. Johnson started all 11 games last season at one defensive end spot, and he finished 4th on the team in tackles and led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.
Alongside TreShaun Clark, Liberty has one of the most talented combination of defensive ends among all non Power Five teams. In his sophomore season in 2020, Clark started all 11 games and tied Johnson for 4th on the team in tackles and was right behind in both tackles for loss (10) and sacks (5.5).
Aakil Washington and Stephen Sings are pass rush specialists who flashed at times during their true freshman campaign last year. Washington played in 9 games while Sings played in 10. They were frequently used on obvious passing downs when they were able to go all out on a blitz towards the quarterback. This dynamic duo created havoc on the majority of their snaps, and they should continue to improve as they have just completed their first full spring with the program.
Jayod Sanders returns to the team as one of the most experienced defensive linemen in the program. He played in 9 games in 2020 and also flashed with his ability to pressure the quarterback. With these five talented athletes leading the way, Liberty’s defensive ends will become well acquainted with opposing quarterbacks this fall, and that’s before we even mention Khristian Zachary who will join the team this summer after choosing Liberty over several Power Five offers and is one of the highest rated recruits to ever sign with the program.
The Flames’ got a huge addition to the 2021 team when super seniors Ralfs Rusins and Elijah James elected to return for one more year. Rusins and James provide experience to the interior of the Flames’ defensive front and both have NFL potential. Rusins started all 11 games in 2020 as he finished with 34 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1 sack. James started 9 of the 10 games he played in and finished with 33 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1 sack. He also was the one who got his right hand on Coastal Carolina’s field goal attempt in overtime of the Cure Bowl that helped the Flames to the win.
Behind Rusins and James, Henry Chibueze continues to develop into a player who can be counted on and he’s pushing for starting time. A former offensive lineman, Chibueze made the move to the defensive side of the ball, and he has dropped down to 305 pounds after previously weighing over 370 pounds.
The Flames will need to continue to build depth on the interior of the line behind those three, especially with Austin Lewis transferring to be closer to his home in Tennessee. Kendy Charles played in 5 games as a true freshman last season, and he will be expected to increase his production. William Green is a veteran who entered the program as a JUCO transfer a couple seasons ago and was expected to make an impact. He has been hampered some by injury, but the Flames could use his added depth.
Karsen Perkins and Rashad Whitehead played limited snaps during their true freshman seasons last year. Both could play inside or on the end, with Perkins more likely to end up on the inside and Whitehead at defensive end. Liberty will also welcome in Christopher Boti, Marquise Brunson, and Jackson Shirer this summer who will all look to improve the depth at defensive tackle.
“That room, we definitely improved since our arrival here,” Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze said. “We’ve gotten longer. I like the look at that room. Love the fact that Ralfs, Elijah, and Jayod are coming back to stay with us and help us keep building. They provide really good leadership in that room.”