September 17, 2020 : By Ryan Klinker - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
The Liberty Flames Football team has navigated an unusually long offseason due to COVID-19 since its historic Cure Bowl victory last December. Unlike many collegiate football programs with uncertain schedules for the fall, Liberty will open its season this Saturday at Western Kentucky, with kickoff set for noon on ESPNU.
“We’re so excited that it’s finally game week,” second-year Head Coach Hugh Freeze said. “It’s been a long time coming and it certainly has felt a little different in our preparations.”
The Flames, who brought in the highest-rated recruiting class in program history, made up for their extended time apart over the offseason when they began their fall camp on Aug. 7; running drills, building chemistry amongst teammates, and mapping out the promising season ahead.
“We had three months off and that hurt us a little bit, but after we got back, we went straight to work,” quarterback Malik Willis said. “We brought it back together with this camp, even though it’s still a little awkward in some cases, but it all worked out. It was great getting back together with the guys and getting things going.”
Competition for record-setting quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert’s starting spot intensified throughout the preseason before Freeze announced Willis, a redshirt junior who transferred from Auburn, as Saturday’s starter under center. Freeze said Willis’ ability to extend plays helped earn Willis the start over Chris Ferguson, a senior transfer from Maine.
“They both have continued to improve, and we just feel like Malik will give us a little extra something when plays don’t quite go the way we want with his legs,” Freeze said. “He hasn’t had the opportunity to lead a football team in its entirety yet on the college level, so it really will depend on how he is executing the offense and if he’s consistent in that.”
“It feels really great to be named the (starter) here, I take it with great honor, and I appreciate that the coaches and the program have faith in me,” Willis said. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m planning on going out there and taking advantage of it.”
Liberty is replacing five offensive starters in addition to Calvert, including standout receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, who now plays for the NFL’s franchise in Washington, and running back Frankie Hickson, who set the career record for all-purpose yards.
“The group has stepped up tremendously with AGG gone and Buckshot gone, and we know that we’ll have to find another way to score,” redshirt senior running back Joshua Mack said. “We’re all stepping up to the plate and coaching each other … and I think we’re ready to go.”
In order to adhere to social distancing guidelines, stadiums’ seating capacity will be substantially limited this season, presenting an unfamiliar game day atmosphere for teams and fans allowed to attend. However, Willis said that the Flames’ focus will be on the field, not on the empty seats in the bleachers.
“It might be a little awkward for the people in the stands, but for us we just have to worry about what’s going on on the field and handling our business, and that will make the fans happy at home,” Willis said.
Liberty begins its third FBS campaign looking to continue making history. The Flames became the ninth team ever to win six or more games in their FBS debut season in 2018 and were the third team to win a bowl game in their first season of bowl eligibility last season.
Western Kentucky also won a bowl game last season, defeating Western Michigan in the First Responder Bowl. The Hilltoppers’ matchup against Liberty will mark the teams’ third overall meeting and first since 1996.
Besides being televised on ESPNU, radio coverage is available through the Liberty Flames Sports Network (LFSN) on 88.3 FM, The Journey, the Liberty Athletics’ website, the My Journey FM app, the Liberty Today app, and the TuneIn Radio app. LFSN pregame coverage will begin 90 minutes before kickoff with the Flames Football Tailgate Show.
Liberty will open its five-game home schedule at Williams Stadium next Saturday, Sept. 26, at 1 p.m. against Florida International University.