Andrew Hattersley: In their first two games against Virginia Tech and Jacksonville, how has the Flames new up-tempo spread offense looked under Stephon Masha?
Damien Sordelett: The question isn’t necessarily easy to answer. There is the good (13 for 19, 181 yards, 3 touchdowns) against Jacksonville that followed the ugly (9 for 25, 70 yards, 2 interceptions) against Virginia Tech. The best way to answer the question is to look at the improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, which is the time all coaches say the biggest leap is made. The offensive line dominated at the point of attack against Jacksonville after committing eight false-start infractions and constantly forcing Masha out of the pocket at Virginia Tech. When the offensive line was successful, Masha had adequate time in the pocket to set and deliver accurate throws. No matter how fast you want the tempo of the offense to move, it won’t have success if the line can’t provide any sort of time to block.
The running game also took a big leap against Jacksonville. The noticeable difference was how the running backs were able to quickly hit creases against the Dolphins that were filled by the Hokies. The main reason can be attributed to the speed of the two defenses. The line has opened holes each week, and it is a matter of the back finding the crease before the defender fills the gap.
AH: With still a relatively young secondary, how do you think they are equipped to handle SMU’s top two receivers Courtland Sutton and James Proche?
DS: I have to imagine Chris Turner, the team’s best cornerback, will follow Courtland Sutton wherever he lines up in the formation. Turner was tasked with a similar responsibility against Virginia Tech’s Isaiah Ford and held his own until Ford used his athleticism and talent to make several plays with Turner draped all over him.
That means Tyrin Holloway will be matched up with James Proche. Holloway has improved from last season, but he is still susceptible to being beaten on deep passes. Jeremy Peters would normally be there to either start for Holloway or back him up, but he is dealing with a nagging left knee injury (likely hamstring) that popped up during preseason camp.
Alpha Jalloh will start at free safety and he usually plays deep enough to provide coverage. Brandon Tillmon at strong safety plays up near the line and showed good athleticism against Jacksonville to follow back in pass coverage. Solomon McGinty plays the third safety spot, called the spur, and he is physical enough to stop the run and possess good instincts to help in the short to intermediate pass coverage.
AH: Who have been some names that have surprised early in the season?
DS: McGinty is the first name that comes to mind. McGinty played at Tyler Junior College and is a native of Navasota. He went to Tyler JC as a wide receiver, broke his left leg early in the season, and when he returned, he switched over to the defensive side and played safety. His size (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) fits perfectly for the spur position and the coaching staff says he is the most physical player on the team. He gives them the player they envisioned at that position in the 4-2-5 scheme.
The second name I’ll throw out there is Kendall Couamin. The tight end only had one reception last season, which coincidently was the same play in which he tore the ACL in his left knee and needed to apply for a medical redshirt. He returned in time for the season opener and has become a safety valve for Masha on third downs. He is a big target (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) over the middle and has solid hands to catch passes over the middle while absorbing the contact. With Zac Parker not getting as much time at slot receiver, Couamin has become the reliable third-down target over the middle.
AH: How do you think Liberty is viewing this game playing another FBS team after falling short against Virginia Tech?
DS: This is the third straight season Liberty is playing two FBS teams. In the previous two seasons, the Flames lost to teams from Power 5 conferences (North Carolina and West Virginia) and then went on to defeat teams from the Sun Belt Conference (Appalachian State and Georgia State). It is a stage Liberty wants to be on. University president Jerry Falwell Jr. announced at the 2012 graduation ceremony that the university was FBS ready and was actively seeking a conference to take them on. The best way to build a resume for those conferences to consider Liberty is to beat FBS teams and then have success at the current FCS level. So, to answer your question, it is being viewed as the next game on the schedule.
AH: Defensively, who are a couple players to keep an eye on that could pose some problems for SMU quarterback Ben Hicks?
DS: I’ve already talked enough about McGinty, so we’ll stick with two players on the defensive line who could force Hicks on the run during the game: JaRon Greene and Juwan Wells.
Greene is an athletic nose guard who uses his 6-foot-2, 310-pound frame to create a push up front and force teams to consider using double teams against him. Greene is considered the team’s most NFL-ready player. He has been a starter since early in his freshman season.
Wells has transitioned over to rush end following Chima Uzowihe’s graduation and there has not been a drop off. He leads the team in tackles (16) and quarterback hurries (3). He has combined for a half sack so far this season, but don’t look at that statistic as a slight. He has the speed to chase down quarterbacks from behind and disrupt timing routes.
You can follow Damien Sordelett on Twitter @DamienSordelett.