If there’s one position group on Liberty’s offense that could possibly struggle this offseason with complacency, it would be the running backs. The Flames’ running back group returns its top two rushers and only two backs that played in all 12 games in 2018, Frankie Hickson and Peytton Pickett, while adding talented Maine transfer Josh Mack and youngsters Frank Boyd, Troy Henderson, and Treon Sibley.
So, to hear them all talk about needing to step up to push to new heights is quite the testament to the new coaching staff.
Bruce Johnson is Liberty’s 5th running backs coach in as many years, joining Coach Freeze’s staff in late January after serving as Assistant AD/Director of On-Campus Recruiting at Indiana in 2017. Prior to his time in the Big Ten, Johnson was on staff at Ole Miss from 2012-2017 in a variety of roles.
His top two returning backs, Hickson and Pickett, combined to rush for over 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2018, but both have been sidelined this spring due to various ailments. Both are expected to be ready to go for the 2019 season.
“5 guys is what you carry,” Coach Freeze said earlier this spring about his running backs group. “So, we’ve got the numbers, it’s just a matter of do we have the right guys. Hopefully, we will get these 2 injured ones back soon. I know that they rushed for some yards last year, and I watched some of those tapes. I think once we get the full view of what that room looks like, I think we’ll be functional for year 1.”
With a new coaching staff and offense in place and being unable to practice, veterans Hickson and Pickett have been deep in studying the playbook and going through walkthroughs before and after practice. Pickett has been able to return to practice in recent days, including this past Saturday’s spring game before being pulled in the 2nd quarter.
“I have to constantly tell them,” Coach Johnson explained, “because Frankie (Hickson) went into the tank a little bit because the guys are on the field and he’s not able to get out there. ‘Dude, you’re ok, man. We’re not crazy. We know what you can do. You had 1,000 yards last year and I saw what you did against Auburn.’”
After sitting out the 2018 season due to NCAA transfer rules, Mack is preparing to make an impact this season. In 2017, he was the leading rusher in FCS at Maine with 1,335 yards while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He has 2 seasons of eligibility remaining.
“Josh is coming along,” Johnson said of the transfer. “I think he’s going to add great value to this group. He’s going to add great value to this team. We’ve got to find a way to get him on some special teams. He can help us out on special teams. There’s a place offensively for him, we’ve just got to see how everything works out when we get to fall camp, but Josh has something. He’s learning how to play in our system, and having to slow down and process what we do because we do a lot of tempos and RPOs. He’s got to learn how to process that. He’s got to learn how to play running back in the confinements of what we’re doing system wise. He’s got to learn how to be a complete back.”
Boyd saw limited action as a redshirt-freshman in 2018 where he rushed for 228 yards and 3 touchdowns on 42 carries. Troy Henderson is coming off his redshirt season; he was a 3-star rated prospect out of high school.
“I don’t know if he’s an every down back yet, but we do know there’s a place for him on some perimeter stuff and with some stuff inside,” Johnson said of Henderson. “We’ve just got to see more from him. There’s a place for him, he’s probably going to be a kickoff return guy and punt returner. Troy’s done some good stuff now. We’ve had some inside zone stuff where he’s popped it, one cut, and got down field real quick. He had an 80-yard run (earlier this spring). I’m interested to see what he can do in some of the other stuff we have in the package.”
Treon Sibley was one of the first guys Coach Freeze targeted since becoming head coach. He was brought in at the December signing period and enrolled for the spring semester. Sibley was originally signed as a wide receiver, but he was moved to running back early in the spring.
“Nothing is given, you have to earn it,” Freeze said of his decision to move Sibley to running back. “He’s an athletic guy, played running back in high school some as well as receiver. I wanted to add some depth and competition there.”
The team’s motto this spring is “Tougher Together”, and it’s something the running backs are taking ownership of.
“Coach Freeze coming in, it’s day and night honestly,” Frankie Hickson said of the differences between the old and new coaching staff. “He’s requiring more of us, he’s stressing us. The new coaching staff is coming with some energy that a lot of us have never even seen before. Everybody has to step up, top to bottom, if we want to get where our goals are, our aspirations for this season. The running back crew is no different. We have to step up.”
Coach Johnson agrees. He’s always looking for different ways to connect with each and every person in his room, to find the perfect way to push them to levels they’ve never seen before.
“We always talk about capturing the hearts and minds of these guys,” Johnson said. “Anything and everything that pushes them in the right direction, to reach that level of breaking through glass and reaching that ceiling.”
If the amount of energy Coach Johnson brings is any indication, the running backs will have a very successful 2019 campaign in a new look offense.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it happens in fall camp because you got Josh Mack, you got Troy (Henderson), you got Frankie (Hickson), Frank (Boyd), (Peytton) Pickett, Treon (Sibley is in there now. This system, just seeing it work and what it can do when we played those other teams in that other conference, it’s a running backs world.”