2017 was anything but Vantz Singletary’s best defensive line since he came to Liberty as the defensive line coach in 2012. Due to roster attrition and injuries throughout the season, the Flames’ front 4 failed to get much of a push, allowing opposing teams numerous holes to run through and quarterbacks all day to find open receivers downfield.

The coaching staff made defensive line it’s #1 priority in recruiting, starting all the way back in August 2017, targeting athletes that could make an immediate impact and beef up the line’s depth. Assistant coach Aaron Wilkins hit the JUCO ranks all over the country looking for talent. That hard work and early start paid off, as the Flames brought in 7 new faces – 4 from the JUCO ranks and 3 out of high school.

Singletary says he’s happy with the added depth, but he doesn’t really know what he has until he sees all these newcomers play in an actual game.

“You never know until you play your first ball game. Practice is practice. More than anything, I just need to see, can they execute? Can they manage their minutes and go out and play at a high level without it being too big for them? Until they play that first game, you’ll never know. I’m excited that they are processing the information, but for me to say they’re going to go out and be killers, they got to go out and play a football game (first).”

Wells lead the team in tackles in 2017

Of course, he does have senior and leading tackler from 2017 back in Juwan Wells at defensive end. Wells, who has gained 15-20 pounds of muscle during the offseason, says he is in the best shape he’s been in since he’s started college.

“He’s playing lights out,” Singletary said of Wells. “He’s struggled with some injuries (throughout his career), but he’s worked through it. He’s come back. He’s flying around. He’s executing. All I know is, when I look at practice film, he’s doing better than anybody we have out there on the field.”

JUCO transfer Jessie Lemonier (lemon-yay) is pushing to be the starter at the other defensive end spot. Originally from Miami, Florida, Lemonier also received offers from Miami (OH), New Mexico, UMass, and Portland State. He finished the 2017 season at Ventura College in Ventura, California with 79 tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, and an interception.

“He has shown (in camp) he can be a dominant pass rush end and also a dominant run stopper,” Wells said of Lemonier. “I think he will be a great piece opposite me.”

Tolen Avery returns from a 2017 campaign where he started all 11 games at defensive tackle. He has the ability to play all 4 defensive line spots, and Coach Singletary will plug him in wherever he is needed most. Mitchell Hurtado saw playing time in 7 games during his first season with the Flames in 2017 after transferring in from a JUCO. He will be fighting for a role as a starter at defensive tackle.

Three JUCO transfers join the fray at defensive tackle in Devin Pearson, Vincent Elefante, and Dylan Gilfoy. They will be fighting for a spot in the rotation with Ralfs Rusins and true freshmen Logan Beadles and Emmanuel Cater.

Jayod Sanders saw playing time in 10 games as a true freshman

Behind Wells, Lemonier, and Avery at end, Singletary can turn to either Jayod Sanders or Austin Lewis. Sanders, a sophomore from Tallahassee, Florida, played in 10 games as a true freshman last year. Lewis was a 3 star recruit out of Tennessee. He weighed just 205 pounds when he took his official visit back in the fall last year, but he’s up to 250 now.

“He’s done well,” Singletary said of Lewis. “He’s still a high school guy. I haven’t had too many guys throughout my tenure here at Liberty that have done a super job as a freshman. Chima Uzowihe, Jaron Geene – both of those guys were kinda different. It was more their wisdom, their knowledge, their athletic ability. Their football IQ was off the charts, if that tells you anything. You got to show me on gameday before I can throw you in that category.”

Will the line be able to improve from 2017? Only time will tell, but with all the new faces, they have the ability. Of course, you can never predict injuries, as Elisha Mitchell has already been lost for the year.

Wells thinks the added pieces will aid the defensive line in become more complete in 2018. “I think Coach Singletary and Coach Aaron Wilkins did a good job of bringing in different pieces of the puzzle to make our D-Line more complete.”