USATSI/ Charles LeClaire

Liberty beat writer Damien Sordelett gives us intel on Liberty

Each week, catches up with the beat writer who covers the Hokies' opponent. This week, we touched base with Lynchburg News & Advance reporter Damien Sordelett for details on Liberty.

1) Who or what stands out about Liberty's offense this season?

SORDELETT: "It's gonna revolve around quarterback Stephon Masha. The reason being is they changed the offense, promoted within for offensive coordinator, Joe Dailey moving from quarterbacks coach to now handling offensive play calls because they wanted to utilize Masha's strengths. He's a dual-threat quarterback and similar mold and size to Tyrod Taylor, if you want to compare him to anyone from Virginia Tech. He utilizes his feet to get out of the pocket. He's worked on his throwing mechanics, his footwork when he's set to throw. That has been his major thing in the off-season. That way, when they do utilize this up-tempo offense, which the coaching staff has been very vague about what exactly the up-tempo offense is. Are they gonna run primarily spread? Are they going pro-style? Are they going two-back sets with a lot of runs? 

Back to Masha, he's gonna be the guy where they need his improvement to stand out, to make this offense run. From what very little I've seen, he has good command presence in the huddle. he's able to go through his progressions and keep his eyes up the field, instead of trying to escape to pick up the first down. He's been very trusting of his receivers, trusting of a very young offensive line and I think that's gonna be the key for Liberty in making sure this new offensive system works. It's making sure he is able to keep his eyes down the field and run when he needs to, not run first and pass second."

2) Based on what you've seen and what you've heard, do you expect this new Liberty offense to be night and day from the pro style? Is it an overhaul or just a bit of tweaking?

SORDELETT: "You bring up a very good question. From what Joe Dailey, the offensive coordinator, said this week, he said the players have bought in to this sense of urgency in order to make sure the offense goes at the pace it's supposed to. They wanna average 80 plays a game on offense. That would be up from, they were averaging about 67 plays a game in the previous four seasons with Aaron Stamn as offensive coordinator. That was in the pro-style and featured a lot of shotgun, primarily the pistol. They typically would run a lot more plays and a lot more run plays when they tried to eat up clock, especially at the end of the game. This offense seems to be geared towards passing, geared towards spreading the defense out and getting some big hits up front, up the middle with the run game. It should be a night and day difference. 

From what the players said after the spring game, there are some pro-style elements to it, where you'll see some plays similar to what they ran last year. But in essence, it's still gonna be no-huddle, get to the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible and try to catch the defense off-guard with moving personnel around to match where the players are lined up on the field. It'll be different, in terms of speed and play calling from what we've seen in the past."

3) Who or what stands out about Liberty's defense this season?

SORDELETT: "There's two facets to that. One is up front with JaRon Greene, who is the nose guard. He is a player who Vance Singletary, the defensive line coach, has raved about for the past couple of years and is probably the most NFL-ready player on this roster. He's 6'2" and 310 pounds, he can do a standing backflip, he gets incredible push up the middle because of his quick-twitch nature. He's able to absorb two blockers often and still get good penetration, which is ideal for the 4-2-5 defense that Liberty runs, to help free up mike linebacker Nick Newman if he's coming on a blitz and Tolen Avery at defensive tackle when he's coming around on stunts.

In the back end, you're looking at a secondary that last year gave up more than 200 yards passing a game for the first time in nearly a decade. The starting cornerbacks, there's one junior and everyone else is either a sophomore or a freshman. They're very young. They got a lot of experience last year, but the experience was also giving up big plays and only scoring one defensive touchdown. They're hoping that year of learning and being tossed into the fire will help in understanding what they need to do to keep big plays from happening."

4) On the defensive side, does it make Liberty better to have gone against an up-tempo offense in practice, like they'll see in Virginia Tech?

SORDELETT: "I asked defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly that last week. He said it's helped them in terms of conditioning. They went up against it in the spring and they realized how woefully out of shape they were to be on the field for that many plays per game. So they spent the spring and summer with the strength and conditioning coach and he worked them into shape. Without seeing a full scrimmage or game, I can't say that case has been backed up, but everything that they've said, is that the defense is faster. They've recruited for this 4-2-5 defense. Dexter Robbins, the starting will linebacker, is more of a traditional linebacker at 5'11" and 225 pounds. He's very comfortable in the crouch. They're going away from that and more towards the 6-foot, 215 pound linebacker who have the speed to go sideline to sideline, blitz and then go into coverage.

Saying that, the defense has gotten faster. Wimberly doesn't practice during the week to match the team's speed they're gonna face. He said more or less, they try to simplify the defensive scheme, so with the offense going as fast as possible, the scheme is as simple as possible, to understand where they need to be and react. They did that a few years ago against Old Dominion. They kept it simple, which allowed them to remain in the game."

5) How much does playing Virginia Tech mean to the school, the fans, the players and anyone else around Liberty?

SORDELETT: "It's big for Liberty because you get the sense that Liberty has aspirations of playing at the FBS level. To be at that level, you have to beat teams at that level. The past two years, Liberty has beaten Appalachian State and Georgia State. Both are members of the Sun Belt Conference. App State was in the final year of transition and Georgia State wasn't very good after that game, until they made a bowl game. Liberty hasn't beaten a power five team. If they were to go to Blacksburg and beat Virginia Tech, it would raise the bar, to say 'we're ready to be at the next level and we deserve it.' But I think this game is important because you get the power five win and that sort of solidifies everything they're building into the program. 

Liberty is building a brand new, $25 million practice facility that will lead into expansion of the east stands. The football stadium got a major renovation about six years ago. So they're putting a lot of money into this program to make sure it has what it needs to succeed. Beating a poer five school would be the next step for Liberty and that's what it will take to get the ball rolling for realignment."

Sordelett's fearless prediction:

I'm gonna say it will probably play out similar to how Liberty's 24-14 opener against North Carolina played out. Liberty hung with North Carolina for the first half, took a lead in the third quarter and then went through five minutes of hell in the fourth quarter where turnovers led to easy scores for North Carolina and before you know it, the game got away from Liberty. I'm not gonna say the same thing will play out, but I think Liberty will cover the spread, They're 6-0 in covering the spread against FBS teams under Turner Gill. I think the final score will be 42-28. Gut feeling is that since there's a lot of unknowns, we could see a lot of scoring or two teams who don't know what they're doing.

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