Liberty Flames — 2020 Syracuse Football preview

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Tommy DeVito looks to throw against North Carolina in the game's first overtime. Syracuse would win 40-37. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its 2020 non-conference schedule on October 17 against Liberty.

It was hard to argue with the results in Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze’s first season with the Flames.

In their first season as a postseason eligible Division I FBS team, Liberty went 8-5, defeating Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl.

As per customary with a Freeze coached team, the passing game excelled, with the Flames throwing for 288.9 yards per game, good for 21st in the FBS. That helped them average a respectable 35.8 points per game, with the team exceeding 59 or more points three separate times.

But Freeze will need to replace several key cogs of that offense, including quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert (3,663 yards, 28 touchdowns), running back Frankie Hickson (1,041 yards, 12 TDs) and wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden (1,396 yards, 10 TDs). Gandy-Golden rode consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons to become a fourth round draft choice of the Washington Redskins in the 2020 NFL Draft.

OFFENSE WILL NEED A RELOAD

Still, Freeze is in the fortunate position of reloading in talent.

At quarterback, he’s got several intriguing options.

Auburn transfer Malik Willis is eligible after sitting out his mandatory redshirt year. The former three-star recruit was a top 400 recruit in his class and appeared in 15 games in his first two seasons, completing 11 of 14 passing attempts for 69 yards and a touchdown.

He’s not going to be the prolific passer that Calvert was, but gives the Flames a dual-threat option.

Grad transfer Chris Ferguson finished a standout Maine career with 5,157 yards, and is looking to prove himself at the FBS level. Internally, sophomore Brandon Robinson and redshirt freshman Johnathan Bennett will also compete for the starting role.

» Related: Can Syracuse get revenge against Louisville?

At receiver, Freeze doesn’t have anyone of the same caliber as Gandy-Golden, but the coaching staff is particularly high on redshirt freshman CJ Yarbrough. He appeared in two games in his redshirt year and flashed his legitimate big play ability in the two games he appeared in, hauling in a 47 yard pass against Virginia and another one for 31 against New Mexico State.

DEFENSE IS SMALL, BUT NIMBLE

On defense, Liberty surrendered 29.1 points per game last season, which was also a respectable 54th in the FBS, though that number jumped to 38.5 points against Power 5 teams (Syracuse, BYU, Rutgers and Virginia).

The Flames were actually not bad defending against the pass, but lacked the size to stop an effective run game.

Its game against Syracuse was a microcosm of its defensive struggles. The Orange gashed Liberty for 192 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, but Tommy DeVito struggled in his first start, passing for just 176 yards and two interceptions in a 24-0 SU win.

Returning safety Javon Scruggs finished with 58 tackles and two interceptions, but only comes in at 5-11 and 175 pounds. That speed and quickness is emblematic of the Liberty defense, with cornerbacks Jimmy Faulks and Kei-Trel Clark, and safety Travion Land as the top playmakers on defense.

THE GOAL: ANOTHER BOWL GAME

Liberty is looking to get to another bowl game in Freeze’s second season, and the goal seems reasonable.

Though ACC road games at Virginia Tech, NC State and Syracuse are likely losses, there are also two FCS teams on the schedule and a winnable game at UConn at the end of October.

The home schedule (North Carolina A&T, FIU, UL Monroe, Southern Miss, Western Carolina and UMass) is manageable and there is definitely 6-8 regular season wins available.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2591 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.