For much of previous head coach Turner Gill’s tenure, Liberty’s defense struggled. Those were struggles were amplified as the Flames made the move to the FBS ranks beginning with the 2018 season. Improvement on defense has been one of several areas highlighted by Hugh Freeze and his staff as an area of focus early in their tenure. Those dividends are beginning to pay off.
In 2018, the final season under Gill’s staff, the Flames allowed 484.8 yards per game, which would have placed Liberty No. 123 among the 130 FBS teams if LU qualified for FBS stats that season during its transition from the FCS.
Things began to turn around last season, the first under Freeze and Defensive Coordinator Scott Symons. Liberty improved to No. 80 in the country holding teams to 409.2 yards per game, still a far cry from where Freeze and Symons wanted the defense.
Now, with another full recruiting class in tow, Liberty’s defense is showing early signs of being a national contender.
Through three games in 2020, all wins against Western Kentucky, Florida International, and North Alabama, Liberty’s defense is holding opponents to 280.7 yards per game and currently rank No. 10 in the country in total defense.
Liberty’s pass defense is also ranked No. 10 in the nation, limiting offenses to 167 passing yards per game. The Flames rank No. 26 nationally in rushing defense, holding opponents to 113.7 yards per contest.
The biggest turnaround has been evidenced by the defensive line play. The Flames’ front line has been able to get pressure routinely, each and every week, as evidenced by their 21 tackles for loss and 12 sacks through 3 games. Liberty is No. 8 in the country with 4.0 sacks per game.
JUCO transfer defensive end Durrell Johnson leads the group up front and also ranks No. 1 nationally, tied with three others, with 4 sacks in his first 3 games in a Liberty uniform. His 6 tackles for loss put him 3rd in the country in that category.
“Defensively, I thought we played our most complete game start to finish,” Symons said of his unit’s performance this past Saturday against North Alabama. “We had five three and outs, I thought our red zone defense was really good, I thought we ran to the ball, tackled probably better than we have all season.”
The Flames’ defense will be tested this weekend when the 27th best passing offense in the country comes to town. Louisiana-Monroe is currently throwing for 265 yards per game, led by first year starter Colby Suits who is 5th in the nation with 1,043 passing yards.
“Their quarterback is by far the best quarterback that we’ve seen,” said Symons. “At the end of the day, that’s where it all starts. If you don’t have a quarterback, it’s tough to be good on offense, and they have a really good quarterback that distributes the ball at a high level and, I think, makes good decisions with it.”