The Flames’ struggles on the offensive line were well documented last season, eventually leading to the dismissal of offensive line coach Dennis Wagner. Aaron Stamn takes over the coaching duties of the line for the 2017 season, and much of the team’s success will hinge on the success of the offensive line.
Many of the struggles last year were due to the injury bug working its way through the O-line, forcing the Flames to have 8 different starting lineups at OL in
OL #74 Julio Lozano R-Junior 6’4″ 270 Bellaire, TX
OL #67 Michael Henderman R-Senior 6’3″ 300 Tyrone, GA
OL #65 Thomas Sargeant R-Freshman 6’3″ 270 Mechanicsville, VA
OL #56 Dontae Duff R-Sophomore 6’1″ 310 Mesquite, TX
OL #73 Sam Isaacson R-Sophomore 6’6″ 305 Lynchburg, VA
OL #66 Ethan Crawford Sophomore 6’3″ 295 August, GA
OL #78 Ernst Andersen R-Sophomore 6’7″ 300 Lillesand, Norway
OL #68 Tristan Schultz Freshman 6’4″ 280 Culver, IN
OL #72 James Passmore R-Junior 6’6″ 295 Dallas, NC
OL #59 Damian Bounds R-Freshman 6’2″ 275 Ellenwood, GA
OL #63 Aidan Burroughs R-Freshman 6’3″ 275 Norfolk, NE
OL #61 Ben Fiordelise R-Sophomore 6’3″ 275 Kalona, IA
OL #79 Adam Fields Freshman 6’4″ 285 Burke, VA
OL #77 Cooper McCaw Freshman 6’5″ 265 Southlake, TX
OL #76 Nate Pena Freshman 6’2″ 305 Mooresville, NC
the team’s 11 games. Without continuity, no line will have success. Coach Stamn and Liberty’s strength and conditioning staff developed a different training regimen for the offensive linemen during the offseason, and Coach Stamn says it’s already paying dividends.
“Big guys are different than skill guys,” Stamn said. “They have different movement sets than skill guys. So, sometimes you have to train muscle groups more or less. That was a big part of what (Bill Gillespie) wanted to do, and when he talked to us about it we were all for it. I think we’ve already seen the benefit of it with our guys. They’re more prepared for this right now. The whole training staff did a great job of being more specific with the linemen. It’s been really, really good.”
Coach Stamn has a few returnees that he will be counting on to anchor the line, beginning with left tackle Julio Lozano. The Bellaire, Texas native transferred to Liberty prior to the 2016 season after competing at Kilgore College for 2 seasons. In 2016, he saw playing time in 8 games and made 5 starts at left tackle. He’s solidified himself as the team’s starting left tackle during camp. Coach Gill has mentioned Lozano on several occasions during the first two plus weeks of training camp as being a standout.
After redshirting in 2015, Dontae Duff had a breakout 2016 campaign, starting all 11 games and making the HERO Sports FCS Freshman All-American team. He has started at center and both guard spots, but is expected to man the right guard position in 2017.
“I definitely feel more comfortable getting a year under my belt,” Duff, a preseason all-Big South selection, said. “I can identify stuff a little better, I know the game speed. I think I’ll be better this year than last year just from the experience I’ve gained.”
Coach Stamn will be leaning on Lozano and Duff’s experience this season. “They’ve played, they’ve seen live bullets in the games. Both of them had good summers, both of them changed their bodies for the better.”
The only senior offensive lineman is 5th year Michael Henderman. He played in just 2 games in 2016 due to a back injury, but says he is back stronger than he’s ever been.
“There for a while last year I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make it back, but now that I’m here, I’m back and I’m ready to go, and I can honestly say I’m stronger and better than before.”
The Tyrone, Georgia native has played in 19 games and started 10 during his Liberty career, and Henderman will enter the season as the team’s starting left guard. He was voted as a team captain for the 2017 season, and has taken on more of a leadership role.
“Mike’s never been a real big vocal guy in the past,” Stamn said. “He’s definitely gotten to be that way now, not all the time though, just when he feels like he needs to. I always like that type of leadership because it doesn’t just fall on deaf ears. Mike has really been trying to take some younger guys in the room and trying to teach them some little things about practicing, working out, even in the meetings. I’ve enjoyed watching Mike be the old man of the room.”
With Duff moving to right guard, the Flames have needed to solidify the center position during camp, and redshirt-freshman Tom Sargeant has stood out so far. “He’s definitely going to be in the mix,” Coach Gill said of Sargeant. “He’s played good football there at the center position.”
While neither Gill or Stamn will say Sargeant has won the starting nod at center, he’s very close. “That’s still yet to be seen,” Stamn said of Sargeant earning the start at center, “but his preparation has been outstanding. He practices hard. He doesn’t make a lot of errors. The center’s got to be able to run the show, and he’s got really good command out there. He’s done a good job. He’s been solid and consistent, and that’s what an o-lineman should be.”
At right tackle, Ernst Andersen entered camp fighting with Sam Isaacson, but Andersen can’t seem to shake the injury bug. Since coming to Liberty, Andersen has yet to see the field primarily due to injuries. He had another setback during camp, and has yet to be able to practice. No final word yet on a timetable for his return. Isaacson played in all 11 games last year including 9 starts at right tackle, and he’s the favorite to win the job after Andersen’s injury.
“(In an) ideal world, you’ve got 10,” Coach Stamn said of how many guys he’d like to have ready to play. “Whether that happens or not, that’s still yet to be seen because those 10 guys all have to prove that they’re going to be ready to go mentally and physically. Ideally we get 10 ready, but if we’ve only got 8 that are ready to go, then we prepare those 8, and maybe it’s the next best tackle goes into the ball game or the next best guard whether he goes to left or right. So, that’s still a work in progress, but I feel good about where we’re at.”
Some of the guys that are battling to be included in that rotation are James Passmore, Ethan Crawford, and Tristan Schultz. Passmore has the most experience of the group, as he played in all 11 games last season, including 7 starts at guard. As a true freshman in 2016, Crawford played in 8 games and made 3 starts at guard. Schultz is a freshman which joined the team in the spring after playing at Fork Union Military Academy.
“We’re still deciding what we want to do with him,” Gill said of Schultz. “Play him, number 1, are we going to play, are we not going to play him? He’s going to probably be a guy that’s going to go into the season and going to suit up to play, and we’ll see what happens here early on in the first game or two. We may be able to make a decision at that point in time.”
There’s 7 total freshmen or redshirt freshmen among the offensive line group, and Stamn said a few of them have stood out. “Damian Bounds, Aidan Burroughs are redshirt freshmen, they’re getting into the swing of things. Day by day you see little improvements by them. True freshman Cooper McCaw has actually been a really good surprise. He’s gonna be a good football player for us down the road.”