2015 Spring Football update
The turf in Williams Stadium is no longer vacant. For about four weeks now, the Liberty football team has been vigorously preparing for the 2015 season during spring practice.
Following the most successful season in program history, the team appears primed and ready for another strong season. Liberty saw its first postseason appearance ever, as well as its first playoff victory, in 2014. Flames Head Coach Turner Gill said it was an honor to be a part of last year’s run, but that the focus has already shifted to the upcoming season.
“I’m just blessed to be a part of (this team),” Gill said. “I’m just thankful for our fans and for our players to do what they did here last season. But that was last season. We’ve got a new season ahead.”
With spring practice winding down, the team has progressed well, according to Gill.
“I think we’re improving in some areas,” Gill said. “Our defense is getting a lot of things going, and we’re trying out different packages there. Offense is trying to work some new schemes in. … But overall we’re making good progress.”
Ahead of the Flames annual spring game, Gill said his eyes would primarily be focused on the play of the team’s younger players.
“We’re watching some of these guys who are inexperienced,” Gill said. “We’re trying to get them some reps and see how they respond in front of a crowd. Basically, we’re just trying to see what they do and how they do it over a long period of time.”
Liberty will look to address different needs along the offensive line as well as at the tight end position. The Flames lost tight end Dexter Herman as well as right tackle Mitch Hanson and center Greg Ray to graduation.
“I think depth is always a concern,” Gill said. “Specifically at the center position and the tight end position, we’re just trying to find some depth for those two positions.”
Gill and his staff received a lot of attention in February after Gill brought in what shapes up to be a fine recruiting class. However, the Flames still possess a strong veteran core led by senior quarter-back Josh Woodrum. Woodrum, a captain for Liberty for the third straight season, said he feels fair at this point in the preseason.
“I feel pretty good,” Woodrum said. “I’m a little heavier than I was playing because I had that knee infection, so I’m moving a little slower and trying to get into better shape. … Mentally, I think I’m moving through the game faster than I ever have. (My) arm feels good and I’m just moving right along.”
Woodrum and the Flames offense welcomed back senior running back Desmond Rice, who missed all of the 2014 season after tearing his ACL in last year’s spring practice.
Rice redshirted the 2014 season and will return to the backfield for his senior season after leading the team in rushing yards and touchdowns in 2013. Rice said it has been a challenge coming back from an injury, but he is confident he will perform well.
“The hardest part (of coming back) was trusting myself,” Rice said. “Just trusting that when I make a play or when I get hit that my knee is going to hold up. It’s not a problem physically because I feel strong, but just mentally being able to trust myself back out there.”
Woodrum said he looks forward to having Rice in the backfield again this year.
“(Rice is) a great blocker, first and foremost,” Woodrum said. “He’s a great runner, obviously, but he’s a tremendous pass blocker. … I know I’m going to get a consistent block from him every time. He’s not going to whiff somebody or cut him when he should stand him up, so it’s really comforting to have him back there.”
Defensively, Liberty will look to replace All-American safety Jacob Hagen and linebacker Dylan Lewellyn, as well as fill other positions. Their contributions to the team, both tangible and intangible, will be missed, but players such as junior linebacker Nick Newman are ready to rise to the challenge.
“I just have to help these guys do the best they can every day,” Newman said. “Whether that means talking to them or just being a leader on the field and showing the guys what they have to do.”
Flames kicker John Lunsford will also attract a lot of attention when September rolls around. Lunsford made headlines last year when he kicked a game-tying, 60-yard field goal as time expired to tie the game against Richmond, breaking his own Big South record. Lunsford said his success is important not just to himself, but to the entire team.
“Obviously, everyone has to do their part,” Lunsford said. “As a kicker, you have one shot, and if you don’t make it count, you’re kind of the scapegoat for everyone to be mad at. But honestly, it’s just all mental, knowing that you’re going to go out there and do your best and be clutch whenever you need to be and just do the things that you normally do.”
Lunsford has also set a lofty goal for himself for his final season at Liberty.
“I want to make a 65-yard field goal by the end of my senior year,” Lunsford said. “The NFL record is 64 yards. … But I want to break that, and hopefully it will be at a home game.”
The Flames will hold two more practices before the end of the school year. After that, the Flames will not practice again, aside from voluntary workouts, until they return from summer break in August. The Flames open at home Sept. 5 against Delaware State.
VANDENBOSCH is a sports reporter.