We conclude our position previews with our look at the quarterbacks.
As has become the theme of all the offensive position groups, Liberty must move forward in 2020 without key pieces who left their mark on the football program for decades to come. Frankie Hickson is no longer in the running back room, leaving as the program’s career leader in all-purpose yards. Dontae Duff started every game for the last four years on the offensive line. Antonio Gandy-Golden was Liberty’s first NFL draft pick since Walt Aikens was selected in 2014 after AGG concluded his career as the Flames’ best wide receiver of all-time.
And we all know about Buckshot Calvert. He was a highly recruited prospect out of high school, and we knew when he signed he would compete for the starting job as a true freshman. Four games into his freshman season, he supplanted Stephon Masha as the team’s starter and went on to re-write the record book at the quarterback position for the Flames.
Hugh Freeze continually harps on competition at each and every position, and he has made quarterback a position of priority in building up the competition since he arrived as Liberty’s head man in December 2018.
His first move was to secure the verbal commitment of Johnathan Bennett and also convince him to join the program for the spring semester of 2019.
Then, he went to the transfer portal and picked up Auburn transfer Malik Willis, but he wasn’t done then. As the Flames were in Orlando preparing for the Cure Bowl, Freeze and his staff secured the commitment of Maine grad transfer Chris Ferguson.
“It’s hard to get better as a quarterback until you play live,” said Liberty quarterbacks coach Kent Austin. “You really can’t get better at that position until you play in the game. We try to mimic the game as much as possible, put them in pressure situations and stay on top of them in those situations to try to increase the level of intensity and pressure to see if they can think properly.”
QB 7 Malik Willis R-JR 6’1″ 215
A former Virginia Tech verbal commit, Willis signed with Auburn and spent his first two seasons with the Tigers. Entering the 2019 season, he was expected to compete for the starting spot but was beat out during the spring, prompting his transfer. It’s no doubt he’s an SEC level athlete, the question about Malik is his passing accuracy. If he’s able to prove he can consistently deliver an accurate ball, he has the ability to be a game changer for the Flames. We know he can extend plays and pick up crucial yardage with his legs.
Quarterbacks coach Kent Austin – “Malik spent a lot of time with the scout team last year, which limited his time in our room. He spent a great deal of time when we were all in quarantine just meeting via Zoom. He spent a great deal of time really studying on his own, watching film and going through the decision making process. Right now, Malik is so physically talented, he’s going to be able to make plays. That’s not going to be the issue. The issue’s going to be can he make great decisions and not force the ball into coverages that confuse him, being able to see pressure off the edge or weak corner blitz. I’ve coached guys like this that are physically talented. It’s a balance. You don’t want to limit them so much to take the ad-lib aspect of the game away from that and try to limit them down, but at the same time you’ve got to dial them in to try to get rid of the disaster play that could inevitably happen with a guy that can throw off balance and throw across his body and is physically talented like that.”
QB 14 Chris Ferguson SR 6’3″ 230
It came as somewhat of a surprise when Liberty signed Ferguson in December as a grad transfer from Maine. It was expected that Willis would virtually have the starting job for the next two seasons, while being pushed by redshirt-freshman Johnathan Bennett. Ferguson is the one guy in the room that has played a significant amount of live snaps at the college level. He provides more of a pocket-passer style quarterback than Willis, but he still has the athletic ability to run the ball if needed.
Quarterbacks coach Kent Austin – “Chris has enough athleticism to move the sticks if he needs to. He probably doesn’t have the level of athleticism to make a really good player or a couple of defensive players miss in the pocket and break contain, but if there’s alleys and escape routes for Chris, he’s able to pull the ball down and move the sticks. He has enough athleticism to move in the pocket and re-establish his base and his eyes to get the ball completed.”
QB 6 Johnathan Bennett R-FR 6’0″ 225
When Bennett signed and joined the program just over a year ago, many thought he would be the favorite to take over for Buckshot this season. That was until Willis and Ferguson transferred in, and now Bennett goes from being 2nd string as a true freshman to likely third string as a redshirt-freshman. He did play limited snaps in four games before getting injured, and both Freeze and Austin have said he’s had a good camp and could push for consideration to be involved in reps with the first team.
Quarterbacks coach Kent Austin – “Johnathan has done really well coming off his injury and all the things he had to deal with. He’s having a really good camp right now. He’s making really good decisions. He’s throwing the ball really well. He’s really worked to get his body back in shape and to get over his injury. He’s obviously a young man that cares a lot and is very, very prepared every time he takes the field.”
QB 10 Will Bowers R-FR 6’0″ 190
Quarterbacks coach Kent Austin – “Will’s gotten some (snaps), not a lot of significant snaps. Will’s throwing the ball pretty well.”
QB 9 Sean Brown FR 6’1″ 180
Quarterbacks coach Kent Austin – “Sean is learning quite a bit. He’s a little overwhelmed right now. I tell all the young guys, don’t get frustrated with the process. That’s the worst thing you can do as a quarterback is to get frustrated early. The switch will go on and it will make sense as it starts to absorb in mentally. I think Sean is a really talented passer. I think he’s displayed that he’s really athletic. He’s got really twitchy-feet and he’s a natural passer with a big arm and natural accuracy.”
*photo courtesy Liberty Athletics