The Flames rank No. 124 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2018
All of the momentum Liberty had at the beginning of last season following the announcement of the transition to the FBS and the landmark victory at Baylor is gone after the Flames struggled late in the year. The heartbreaking loss in the season finale at Charleston Southern marked the second straight season the Flames have ended the campaign with a defeat, and it was the third straight season the program finished 6-5 after its lone FCS playoff appearance in 2014.
Previewing Liberty Football's Offense for 2018
Liberty's offense has trended toward an up-tempo scheme since Joe Dailey took over as offensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season. The Flames averaged 76 plays per game last season -- including games with 103 and 100 -- and the target this season is 80.
Quarterback Buckshot Calvert threw for 250 or more yards in eight of the Flames' 11 games on his way to setting program single-season records in passing yards (3,363), passing attempts (438) and touchdown passes (29).
Calvert's development can be traced to his rapport with wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, who enjoyed a breakout season with 1,066 yards and 10 touchdowns on 69 catches. He was one of four Liberty wide receivers to record more than 500 yards receiving last season.
Running back depth will need to be addressed after the graduation of Carrington Mosley and Todd Macon. Frankie Hickson has rushed for 825 yards and six touchdowns in two seasons and is responsible for 194 of the 224 carries on the roster. The staff is high on redshirt freshman Frank Boyd.
Right guard Dontae Duff anchors an offensive line that returns four starters and might be one of the deeper and more talented units Liberty has fielded in recent memory.
Previewing Liberty Football's Defense for 2018
The Flames took a giant step backward in the second half of last season when the defensive line rotation was trimmed to six players. Liberty allowed 131.4 rushing yards in the first five games with a healthy eight-man rotation, then surrendered a whopping 303.0 yards per game on the ground in the final six weeks. That forced Liberty to go the junior college route to get bodies who can immediately contribute on the line, and Vincent Elefante, Devin Pearson and Jessie Lemonier are expected to help solidify a unit that features NFL prospect Juwan Wells at rush end.
Solomon Ajayi, the brother of NFL running back Jay Ajayi, will be asked to replace the productivity and leadership of Solomon McGinty at weak-side linebacker. Ajayi sat out last season with a hand injury, and his backup is Brandon Tillmon, who moves to linebacker after starting all of last season at strong safety.
The secondary returns two cornerbacks with at least six starts last season in Jeremy Peters and Jimmy Faulks, and a healthy Malik Matthews should help shore up a pass defense that allowed 223.5 yards per game through the air -- 50 more than in 2016.
Previewing Liberty Football's Specialists for 2018
Alex Probert is 23-of-31 on field goal attempts of 30 yards or more in two seasons at Liberty, but he will have to break in a third different holder and a new long snapper this season. Redshirt freshman Aidan Alves is the new punter.
Sustaining success throughout an entire season has been Liberty's struggle under coach Turner Gill, and if the offense is unable to score enough points to negate the defense's inability to stop the run, Liberty's streak of 12 consecutive winning seasons will end.