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A Spring Practice Look at Liberty's Defense

April 5, 2011  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Asa Chapman will be one of several key seasoned veteran players returning on Liberty's defensive line and secondary.

Asa Chapman will be one of several key seasoned veteran players returning on Liberty's defensive line and secondary.

Unlike the offense that is littered with "named" players with gaudy stats in the likes of Walter Payton watch list member Mike Brown and All-America wide receiver Chris Summers, Liberty's defense remains a total team effort under head coach Danny Rocco.

Despite leading the Big South and ranking inside Top 25 nationally in defense for the fourth time in the last five years, the Flames only had one tackler with more than 60 stops. Graduated senior linebacker Kyle O'Donnell was the lone player on Liberty's roster to rank as one of the Top 25 players in the Big South in terms of tackles per game (6.8/75 tackles).

Liberty finished the 2010 season ranked five points per game better than any other defense in the Big South and ended the season ranked No. 24 overall in the country by allowing 20.18 points per contest.

Rocco's defensive schemes have excelled during the last five years due in part to the number of players the coaching staff continues to flow into the game. The rotation keeps the individual players' defensive numbers lower than most programs, but helps keep Liberty's defenders fresh and ready for the challenge of a 60-minute contest.

"When you look at our defense coming into the 2011 season, I think there are some elements that show we could be as good as we've been since I've been with the program," continued Rocco.

"It is early and we are just heading into the spring. During the past season in our ‘self-scout,' there were really only two football games where we did not play championship-style defense," reflected Rocco. "Both of those games, we did not play well defensively. Both were on the road, Robert Morris and Coastal Carolina, which resulted in a loss."

"But when I look at what we did defensively, we were more multiple and we were better more often than we were the previous couple of years," remembered Rocco. "Our overall statistics do show these facts to be true."

Rocco also made some adjustments to his defensive coaching staff for the 2011 season, switching up roles among three of its members.

Besides orchestrating Liberty's defense for the sixth year in row, defensive coordinator Tom Clark will focus his efforts as Liberty's secondary coach in 2011. "Tom worked mostly with the secondary prior to coming to Liberty and I feel that is his most comfortable coaching role."

With Clark taking over the secondary, Wally Ake will now work with Liberty's linebackers, while Marshall Roberts, who is Liberty's special teams coordinator, will assist Clark in the secondary.

Cornerbacks

Returning Starter:
KaJuan Lee (R-Sr., 5-11, 190)
Players to Watch:
Walt Aikens (So., 6-1, 180)
Kevin Fogg (Jr., 5-10, 185)
Pierre Hawkes (Jr., 5-10, 170)
Ron Hobby (R-Jr., 5-9, 185)
Chris Mayo (So., 5-11, 195)
Kenny Scott (Fr., 5-10, 170)

Liberty's most experienced group of defenders for the 2011 season will be its last line of defense, with three of its four starting defensive backs returning for their final season.

"I really think this is the group that should be the best secondary that we have had at Liberty since I've been the head coach," commented Rocco.

"I say that for a lot of reasons, but it all starts with the fact that we only lost one player from last year's program," added Rocco. "Donald Manns (boundary corner) has been a very solid player for us the last several years, both as a reserve player and starter and is the only player that graduated from this group last year."

Manns finished the season ranked ninth on the team and third in the secondary with 34 tackles (20 solo, 14 assisted), to go along with three pass breakups.

"We've certainly been stock piling some depth and talent in this group, so that we will have a very deep and experienced crew for the 2011 season," continued Rocco.

Returning at field corner will be two-year starter KaJuan Lee, who finished the 2010 season with 12 of his 17 tackles being of the solo variety. "KaJuan was an all-conference player two years ago, but didn't have as much of an acclaimed season in 2010," said Rocco. "However, going into his third season as a starter, he is a big, tall and athletic player with a 40-inch vertical jump."

Competing behind Lee at the field corner position will be Ron Hobby for the second year in a row. The Pittsburgh transfer finished his first season with the Flames with 11 tackles and three pass breakups. "Ron is really coming into his own as a player and fits into our program."

The Flames coaching staff is also excited about the development of Kenny Scott, who redshirted this past year. He is coming off an impressive winter workout session, where he posted some stellar numbers including a 4.4, 40-yard dash. "Kenny is a very good football player with a bright future for our program."

Looking to fill the vacancy left open by Manns' graduation will be Illinois transfer Walt Aiken, an All-Big Ten freshman selection for the Fighting Illini in 2009. According to the coaching staff, Aiken is "very talented" and has the most promise of any player in this position in recent history.

Kevin Fogg will look to challenge Aiken at boundary corner, following a stellar sophomore season. During his second year with the program, Fogg finished 2010 with 33 tackles, 26 of which were solo, to go along with four pass breakups and two interceptions. "Kevin Fogg has done a lot of good things for us during his first two years with the program, giving us two solid players at this position."

"With Walt and Kevin, along with Pierre Hawkes, we are very excited about this position," added Rocco. "We are also excited about the things we are going to be able to do with our corners because of their size and speed."

Safeties

Returning Starters:
Larry Claiborne (R-Sr., 6-1, 190)
Brandon Robinson (Sr., 6-1, 180)
Players to Watch:
Jacob Hagen (R-Fr., 6-2, 205)
Jeffrey Henderson (R-Sr., 6-0, 210)
Andrew Jauch (Fr., 6-1, 195)
Chris Mayo (So., 5-11, 195)

The safety position returns all the key players from last year's roster, plus the coaching staff has added additional depth with some newcomers to the program.

"At safety, we had a lot of players that played for us last year, starting with Larry Claiborne and Brandon Robinson," commented Rocco. "These two players are both going to be seniors this year and both have a solid year and half to two years under their belts. These are the two guys that are going to walk out there on ‘Day One' ready to start."

Claiborne had a career year in 2010, finishing fifth on Liberty's roster with 40 tackles (25 solo and 15 assisted), to go along with three pass breakups. The senior is slated to return for the third year in a row at free safety.

Robinson played opposite of Claiborne and behind Brent Vinson at weak safety in 2010. Robinson is ready to assume the starting role now with Vinson being reassigned to the "adjuster" position this upcoming season. In 11 games, Robinson recorded 29 tackles and three pass breakups.

Backing up Robinson at weak safety will be Chris Mayo, who certainly excelled for the Flames in his first season after coming to Liberty from football powerhouse Fork Union. "Chris played a lot last year and has done nothing but get better since joining the program," commented Rocco about the player who finished the year tied for seventh on the team with 37 tackles.

Jeffrey Henderson, the older brother of quarterback Gabe Henderson, came to Liberty from North Carolina Central and had to sit out last year. The player, who has one year of eligibility left, is slated to back up Claiborne at free safety. "Jeffrey was a two-year starter at safety for North Carolina Central, so he brings a level of experience with him and to this group," added Rocco.

Two newcomers to the roster will look to add depth and impress the coaching staff during the spring workouts in Jacob Hagen and Andrew Jauch. Jauch is a true freshman, while Hagen redshirted for the Flames in 2010.

"Jacob Hagen is a player that I think is going to be fantastic. He is a big and talented athlete with a long body and the ability to run. If he doesn't end up a safety, he has the makeup to play outside linebacker," stated Rocco. "Andrew is a young man that we greyshirted and have brought him in at the midyear. He started at corner, but we are going to move him to safety where we can look at him this spring."

Defensive Line

Returning Starter:
Asa Chapman (Sr., 6-5, 380)
Players to Watch:
Francis Bah (R-So., 6-3, 285)
Justin Gunn (R-Jr., 6-4, 250)
Cory Freeman (R-So., 6-4, 270)
A.B. Latif (R-Sr., 6-5, 265)
Bryant Lewellyn (R-Jr., 6-1, 285)
Greg Schuster (R-Jr., 6-2, 280)
Matt Stokes (Fr., 6-1, 255)
Paco Varol (R-So., 6-2, 270)

It is not often that you hear a coach excited about the losses of three players who accumulated 110 games of playing experience and finished with a combined 181 tackles and 43.5 tackles for a loss during their four-year careers.

However, Rocco finds himself that way coming into the 2011 season, as he feels the group behind the defensive stalwarts of Terry Adams (35 games/67.5 tackles/18.5 TFL), Patrick Bannon (43 games/73.5 tackles/14.0 TFL) and Daryl Robertson (32 games/40.5 tackles/11.0 TFL) could be that much better.

This steady trio of players has laid the groundwork and trained the next incoming class that has much more untapped talents. "I think the group that is coming has great potential and could be better than any group we have ever had on the defensive line," state Rocco.

The three-player group will be anchored by nose guard Asa Chapman, who returns for his fourth season with the program. Chapman earned fourth-team All-America honors in 2010, as he ranked third on Liberty's defensive roster with 41 tackles, four quarterback hurries, 3.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble.

"Asa is what I call a ‘man's man.' He has been a three-year starter for our program and is an amazing athlete for a man of his size," commented Rocco. "He was recognized for his efforts this past year as an All-American and is coming off a great offseason. He is fit and in shape and I'm hoping he can be as dominant as he is capable of being."

Behind Chapman at nose guard will be Bryant Lewellyn and Matt Stokes. Lewellyn played in just two games in 2011, while Stokes was another of Rocco's greyshirted athletes.

"Bryant gives us some depth at the nose guard position, as he is a strong and physical player and brings the needed toughness to this position," stated Rocco.

Looking to fill the void left by the three-man starting rotation of Adams, Bannon and Robertson at the end positions will be Greg Schuster and Cory Freeman. Additionally, Rocco moved Francis Bah, a former tight end, to the defensive end position for the 2011 season.

"Greg is a big, strong and physical player that recently ran a 5.15 in the 40-yard dash," said Rocco. "He is strong as a bull and is going to get a chance to play at end this season after backing up Asa the past two seasons. He will see time both at end and nose guard this season because we feel he deserves to be on the field."

Schuster finished the 2010 season with 23 tackles in 11 games, and came up with his first career fumble recovery during Liberty's season finale against Stony Brook.

Freeman is one of the returning players with experience at defensive end. Despite only recording 12 tackles in 11 games, Freeman really impressed the coaching staff, and they have high expectations for the upcoming underclassman.

"Cory is a defensive end that returns and really has a chance to be an All-America caliber player," stated Rocco. "Cory played a lot for us last year and we are excited about his speed, as he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash the other day."

Joining Freeman in the category of players that will have three years left after this season is Bah. "Francis is truly a gifted athlete," stated Rocco. "He ran a 4.6 40-yard dash during the end of winter conditioning drills and already has several school weight room records."

Paco Varol, part of Liberty's Germany connection that brought the team Big South all-conference offensive lineman Soeren Wendland, had a promising spring last year, but was hampered by injuries during most of the regular season.

"I really believe with Cory, Francis and Paco, who is coming off a great offseason, we are going to have a very nice rotation at end," commented Rocco.

The remaining players of note that will see time at defensive end this year are A.B. Latif and Justin Gunn. According to Rocco, Gunn is "getting big" and continues to learn the defensive position, while Latif, a Virginia Tech transfer who will sit out the spring, will have one year left after serving as a defensive player down in Blacksburg.

Outside Linebackers

Returning Starters:
Mike Connolly (R-Sr., 6-1, 235 … will sit out the spring with an injury)
Brent Vinson (Jr., 6-0, 215)
Players to Watch:
D.J. Edmond (R-Fr., 6-1, 210)
Nick Martin (R-So., 6-1, 230)
Thomas Nelson (R-Jr., 6-0, 210)
Randy Spann (R-Fr., 5-10, 215)
Demetrius Ward (Jr., 6-0, 225)

Just like the offense, the Flames have one defensive position that will see several different faces in starting roles for the 2011 season.

The Flames return just one true linebacking starter for the 2011 season in Mike Connolly, and he will sit out the spring workout season recovering from an injury that caused him to miss the last five games of the year.

"The most challenging position defensively for us this spring is the linebacker position," commented Rocco. "Not that this isn't a good situation, but just like our offensive line, different guys are going to have to step in and step up to new roles this spring."

Three of Liberty's four top tacklers from the 2010 season graduated last year, with each being starting linebackers for the Big South's top defensive unit. Kyle O'Donnell, last year's JACK linebacker, led the team and garnered first-team all-conference honors with 75 tackles, 12.0 tackles for a loss and 3.0 sacks.

Additionally, the Flames will be without the services of last year's MIKE linebackers Doncel Bolt (53 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles) and Chad Brown (40 tackles, 5.0 TFLs and 2.0 sacks), plus adjuster Danny Broggin (31 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks and four interceptions).

"No doubt, we have enough talented players and depth to excel at linebacker, but we are going to have to see it during the spring," continued Rocco.

Last year, Rocco changed the positioning and terminology of his linebacking corps, adding an "adjuster" and "drop" outside linebackers. The alteration gives the Flames some versatility and flexibility at the position that mirrors a traditionally "3-3-5" defensive scheme.

"We are going to be real solid at the ‘drop' linebacker position when Mike Connolly fully recovers from the injury that kept him out late last year," added Rocco.

Connolly got off to a solid start in 2010 with 19 tackles in six games, including a strong outing in Liberty's upset of FBS foe Ball State, where he finished with 3.5 tackles, a sack and fumble recovery on the game-sealing defensive stand.

Filling in for Connolly this spring and the player that will serve as a backup in the fall will be Demetrius Ward, who recorded 17 tackles in 11 games last season. "Mike and Demetrius manned this position between the two of them last year and will likely continue these same roles this upcoming season," continued Rocco.

Brent Vinson is a returning starter for the Flames, but he spent most of last year in the secondary as that starter at weak safety. This year, Vinson has been moved to the "adjuster" position, taking over for Broggin, who had a breakout year with 31 tackles and four interceptions during his senior campaign.

Vinson has some previous experience with the position, as he manned it last spring. However, with the unexpected development of Broggin, Vinson returned to the secondary during the regular season.

"We are also going to take a good long look at players like Thomas Nelson, Randy Spann, Nick Martin and D.J. Edmond for various roles this spring," remarked Rocco. "We think that all of these guys will be able to provide immediate help at the outside linebacker position.

"We just need some guys to step up and come through this year, and there is no reason that players like Brent Vinson can't develop into all-conference type players at this position."

Inside Linebackers

Returning Starters:
None
Players to Watch:
Brian Arelt (R-So., 5-11, 225)
Matt Baptiste (R-Fr., 5-11, 220)
Eric Fath (R-So., 6-3, 240)
Scott Hyland (So., 6-0, 225)
Marques Jenkins (R-Jr., 6-1, 235)
Jimmy O'Grady (Fr., 6-0, 235)
Nick Sigmon (R-Fr., 6-0, 240)

Rocco feels his greatest level of evaluation this spring will come from the inside linebacker position, where the previously mentioned O'Donnell, Bolt and Brown have left vacancies with their graduation from the program.

"The inside linebacker position is very interesting and this is where we are looking forward to evaluating the competition," stated Rocco. "We want to see who steps up. We will work this group of players at both MIKE and JACK linebacker, giving players the opportunity to prove themselves and earn a starting role."

Eric Fath had a chance to gain some playing experience last year and the converted tight end did impress the coaching staff during those spurts. "After having knee surgery that prevented him from previously playing, Eric is back and looks to be fully healthy," said Rocco.

Nick Sigmon is a redshirt freshman that the coaching staff "has high hopes for" and they believe he has all the tools to come out and have an excellent spring.

Jimmy O'Grady comes to Liberty after playing two seasons of postgraduate football at Hargrave Military Academy. "He has come into our program and has had a great offseason," commented Rocco. "He was the fastest of all the inside linebackers and has tested very well."

The element that excites the Flames coaching staff the most about the trio of players that will be vying for time at the MIKE linebacker is their availability. Fath has three years of eligibility left, while O'Grady and Sigmon have four years left with the program.

The most "seasoned" veteran among the inside linebacker group is Marques Jenkins, who played in 10 of 11 games in 2010. "We are waiting for Marques to set into his own role," commented Rocco. "He has been a role player in our program for the last two years after transferring from Ole Miss. He has all the ability and tools, but he just has to put it together."

Behind Jenkins at the JACK linebacker this spring will be three players in Scott Hyland, Matt Baptiste and Brian Arelt that will push for playing time.

"Scott is a master of many trades, as he can play many linebacker positions," continued Rocco about Hyland, who stepped in as a true freshman and played after Connolly's injury.