After a tumultuous offseason, Chris Turner returns and hopes to perform at an all-conference level for the 3rd consecutive season. He’s started 17 games and has picked off 7 passes over the past 2 seasons while making SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays on separate occasions. Turner has all the tools to make it to the next level if he’s willing to put in the extra work and can be more consistent each and every game.
“I see Chris being very mature and improving in every area of his life and on the field,” cornerbacks coach Marshall Roberts said. “It’s really fun to watch.”
Starting opposite Turner at
CB #39 Chris Turner R-Junior 6’3″ 175 Columbia, SC
CB #2 Jeremy Peters Junior 5’10” 190 Green Cove Springs, FL
CB #8 Jimmy Faulks Sophomore 6’1″ 175 St. Petersburg, FL
CB #24 Malik Matthews R-Sophomore 5’11” 185 Jacksonville, FL
CB #21 Khaleel Carrington Senior 5’10” 165 Largo, MD
CB #27 Cameron Jones Junior 5’11” 195 New Orleans, LA
CB #22 Kimani Donaldson Freshman 6’0″ 165 Jonesboro, GA
CB #29 Keith Best Freshman 6’2″ 180 Tucker, GA
CB #41 Ryan Taylor Senior 5’7″ 165 Lorton, VA
CB #29 Elijah Temple R-Freshman 5’11” 185 Boone, NC
S #28 Corbin Jackson R-Junior 6’0″ 200 Charlotte, NC
S #3 Rion Davis R-Sophomore 6’0″ 190 Hopkins, SC
S #12 Brandon Tillmon Sophomore 6’1″ 210 Lexington, SC
S #6 Ceneca Espinoza, Jr R-Freshman 6’1″ 200 Arlington, VA
S #31 Elijah Benton R-Sophomore 6’1″ 190 Forest, VA
S #43 Benjamin Alexander R-Freshman 6’2″ 175 Spring Mills, PA
S #32 Aaron Pierre Freshman 6’0″ 205 Tampa, FL
S #33 Tyron Staples Freshman 6’0″ 190 Bedford, VA
S #26 Ryker Youngs Freshman 6’2″ 180 Highlands Ranch, CO
corner will be junior Jeremy Peters who has seen playing time in 19 games over his first two campaigns. He fought through a hamstring injury last season that caused him to miss 4 games and kept him from playing at the top of his game, but he’s had a healthy offseason and is ready to take the next step in 2017.
“Just being consistent,” Coach Roberts said of what he expects out of Peters this year. “Just being consistent. Just him settling in to having an opportunity to play a great deal, and then really capitalizing on that opportunity. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Competition at corner is fierce as Malik Matthews and Jimmy Faulks push Turner and Peters every day during practice. “We push each other a lot,” Peters said of the competition. “We’re there for each other, but we’re going to push each other, and try to get everyone better.”
Matthews was never healthy in 2016, as he saw playing time in just 3 games after redshirting in 2015. Coach Roberts says his strengths are using his hands and being physical at the line of scrimmage. “Malik Matthews is really becoming a dominant football player,” Roberts said.
Faulks played in 9 games as a reserve last year, while making six tackles. The Lakewood High product out of St. Petersburg, Florida is ready to take his game to the next level in 2017.
“Jimmy Faulks has come a long way,” Roberts said of his true sophomore. “He’s shown us that he has the ability to change direction and have a quick-twitch. He’s already got the length, and he’s improving on his ability to use his hands at the line of scrimmage.”
Keith Best is a true freshman that was a highly rated recruit coming out of high school, but he’s fighting back from a knee injury he suffered during his senior year. “Keith is doing well,” Roberts said. “He’s working day by day. Really smart kid. He’s really picked up our defense already. He’s just going through his process of learning. I’m really pleased to see how mature he is. With that length and that body, he’ll be a factor in what we try to do in the future, a major factor.”
Another reserve corner is Ryan Taylor who transferred to Liberty from Delaware State a year ago. Taylor didn’t play football at DSU, but he’s made an impression early on with the Flames.
“He’s turning heads. He’s really quick and very physical for his size. He’ll compete with anybody. What I’m really watching and seeing is Ryan fight others for playing time. He’s really developed into a very solid player for us.”
Coach Roberts prides himself on the team’s good secondary play under his leadership, and he expects more of the same in 2017.
“We know what really good secondary play looks like. We’ve got a number of guys still playing today who understand that part as well. So, every year you set (the bar) at that championship level, you set it at the elite level.”
Despite finishing 13th in all of FCS in pass defense, Roberts says the team’s production in 2016 was not as good as should be expected. “Last year we didn’t play up to our ability at all, not even close. They’re not even looking at that. Last year, 13th, we expected to be so much better than that. We dropped a ton of picks last year.”
Safety is another position where the Flames have a lot of youth, but, despite that youth, there is still plenty of experience at the positon. In Defensive Coordinator Robert Wimberly’s defense, the safety position takes up 3 of the 5 defensive back positions including the unusual Spur position. Coach Wimberly, who is also coach of the safeties, has zeroed in on his three starters.
Corbin Jackson will start at free safety, a spot he manned in all 10 games he played in 2016. In fact, Jackson has started 20 games over the past two seasons after playing his redshirt-freshman season at the Spur. Now, he’s entering his 2nd straight season as the starting free safety, something he says will make him a better player in 2017.
“I have a better understanding of free safety,” Jackson said. “It’s my 2nd year (there), so, I’m a lot better at it. I understand a lot more what I’m seeing in the back-end. When it’s your 2nd year, then you’re much better at it. You’re more efficient.”
Coach Wimberly is expecting big things out of the elder statesman of his safety room. “Corbin Jackson has done a nice job. He’s had his best 3 weeks of practice since he’s been here. He’s been focused. He’s been very good with attention to detail. He’s done a great job leading our room.”
At strong safety, Liberty will have to replace Alpha Jalloh who started 22 career games at safety including all 11 at strong safety in 2016. Wimberly will look to talented sophomore Brandon Tillmon to step into Alpha’s role. Tillmon played in 10 games as a true freshman last season and recorded 14 tackles as a reserve.
Rion Davis moves into a starting role at the Spur after Solomon McGinty switched to linebacker prior to spring practice. Davis, who received the team’s Samkon Gado award for the most improved defensive player in the spring, played in all 11 games in 2016 while making his first career start in the season finale against Coastal Carolina. He finished the year with 19 tackles, but stood-out against the Chanticleers making 7 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a pass break-up. Wimberly says that Davis has made great gains during the offseason, most notably in the weight room adding additional weight.
Elijah Benton is the only other safety on the roster with any game experience, and he will be counted on in 2017 to make an impact at safety. During his redshirt-freshman campaign a season ago, Benton played in 10 games while making 13 total tackles. Coaches Gill and Wimberly have both highlighted Benton’s play during training camp.
Another guy who has drawn a lot of praise from the coaching staff this month is redshirt-freshman Ceneca Espinoza. The Arlington, Virginia native redshirted last year, a decision that the coaching staff debated for nearly an hour at the end of training camp in 2016. Ultimately, the staff decided it was best to save his year of eligibility. Espinoza has bounced around the defensive backfield since coming to Liberty, originally joining the team as a safety, switching to cornerback last year, and back to safety during this offseason.
“He’s definitely brought (competition into the safety room), and I’ve been real pleased with him. He’s going to have a very good career here. (He’s) still making strides because he redshirted last year but, his football IQ, his athleticism, he’s a very physical kid. What he allows us to do is play more man coverage at the slot position because he came in at the corner.”
Another redshirt-freshman, Ben Alexander, will also be in the mix as a reserve safety and on special teams. The 6’2″, 175 pounder is a native of Spring Mills, Pennsylvania and Penns Valley High School where he excelled as a receiver and defensive back. As a junior, he set school and county records with 384 rushing yards and 6 total touchdowns in one game.
True freshman Aaron Pierre has also made his presence known in the safety room during camp. “He’s done a really nice job,” Wimberly said of the Tampa native. “He’s really surprised me with his football IQ, and I’m really excited about him.”
Will Pierre see playing time as a true freshman? “He’s making it tough, he’s making it real tough,” Wimberly explains. “When you look at my room, I don’t have any seniors, and I have a lot of guys coming back. You don’t want to stack up too many guys when you think about the big picture, but the best guy’s got to play and he’s making a case for himself.”