Breaking down the new season for LU and the Big South
Following the most successful season in program history, the Liberty Flames football team will begin regular season action Saturday Sept. 5 as it hosts Delaware State in Williams Stadium.
Liberty comes into this season ranked No. 14 in the FCS Coaches Poll, according to ncaa.com, which is the highest preseason ranking for the team since 1996, when it was ranked No. 9 in the Sports Network poll. The Flames have five home games slated for the 2015 season, including bouts with two ranked FCS opponents – Liberty’s arch rival
No. 5 Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19) and No. 12 Montana (Sept. 15).
As it continues its climb up the FCS ladder, Liberty also scheduled two FBS opponents for this year — West Virginia and Georgia State. The Flames will travel to Morgantown to take on the Mountaineers Sept. 12 and will visit the Panthers in Atlanta Oct. 3. Conference play will begin Oct. 10 when the Flames play the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs on the road. Having had many key players graduate this offseason, the Flames responded by adding a solid recruiting class of 14 players in the spring. However, the task of building on last season’s playoff run will remain with the upperclassmen, as only two freshmen are listed as starters on the latest depth chart released by Flames Head Coach Turner Gill Aug. 26.
Senior quarterback Josh Woodrum, who will become the first four-year starting quarterback in the program since 1992, when Robby Justino started his fourth season as quarterback, will guide Liberty’s offense yet again this season. Woodrum stands to break nearly all of Justino’s records during the 2015 campaign. He currently ranks second in program history with 7,494 career passing yards and is tied for third with 49 career passing touchdowns. Justino holds the career program record in both categories (9,548 career passing yards and 64 career passing touchdowns), according to the Liberty Flames Record Book.
Woodrum’s favorite target, All-American wide receiver Darrin Peterson, is in position to break a few records of his own. Peterson, a senior, is only 449 yards away from breaking Chris Summers all-time receiving yards record (2,712). He is also just 42 catches away from breaking the all-time receptions record (188) and eight touchdowns away from breaking the all-time touchdown record (27), which are both held by Summers.
Rejoining the Liberty offense this season will be red shirt senior running back Desmond Rice, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. The year prior (2013), Rice ran for 967 yards and logged the second-most rushing touchdowns in a single season in program history (16), according to libertyflames.com. Rice is listed as the starting running back ahead of senior D.J. Abnar, who filled in brilliantly for the injured Rice in 2014, rushing for 1,289 yards and 15 touchdowns. With both running backs at full strength, the Flames boast what could be a potent rushing attack.
Defensively, Liberty is led by senior defensive end Chima Uzowihe, whose field goal block in last year’s season finale at Coastal Carolina sent the Flames to their first-ever playoff appearance. Uzowihe and the Flames defense will be tested early this season against a team such as West Virginia, which was ranked 12th in the country in total offense and 9th in passing offense last season, according to ESPN Stats.
“We started something,” Uzowihe said at Big South media day. “We made history last year, but we don’t want it to end there,”
Liberty has also started to garner national attention, especially concerning its rivalry with Coastal Carolina. In 10 of the last 11 seasons, either Liberty or Coastal Carolina has won at least a share of the Big South title. This year’s matchup between the Flames and the Chanticleers will be the final regular season game for each team and will be aired on ESPNEWS. The game has also been moved from Saturday, Nov. 21 to Thursday, Nov. 19, because of Thanksgiving break beginning for students Nov. 21.
Last season’s playoff run made Liberty much more relevant in the realm of FCS football, but that was last year. With a new season comes new expectations and new challenges, and the Flames, like any other team, will have their share of those. So buckle up, Flames fans, as another exciting season of Flames football begins Saturday.
Big South Preview:
While people may think they know the Big South, this is not the same old football conference many have grown accustomed to. This year the Big South not only added a new member in Kennesaw State, but it also has two teams, Coastal Carolina and Liberty, in the Preseason top 25 FCS polls for the first time in its history according to bigsouthsports.com.
Just because the favorites are obvious, does not mean that the other Big South teams will not come ready to compete.
Charleston Southern is the only other Big South team that received votes in the preseason top 25 polls and they are the team that beat Liberty a week before the Flames turned around and upset the number one team in the country last year. If looking for a realistic team to dethrone Coastal and Liberty, look no further than Charleston Southern.
Kennesaw State is the new guy at the table and it ranks last in the preseason Big South rankings, but do not expect them to stay quiet for long. The Owls have already sold out their 8200-seat stadium for their inaugural football game in September, according to ksuowls.com and they will get the chance to make some noise as they play both of the Big South powerhouse teams on the road. A win in either game would be monumental in paving the way for the Owls in years to come.
Presbyterian, Gardner-Webb and Monmouth make up teams four through six respectively in the Big South preseason poll, but anything can happen this year in the Big South.
Coastal Carolina red shirt-senior quarterback Alex Ross was voted the Big South Conference’s 2015 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year while Gardner-Webb senior defensive lineman O.J. Mau was voted the preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
VANDENBOSCH is the sports editor.
Schmieg is the asst. sports editor.