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Liberty Football: 2021 Flames Season Preview and Prediction

Malik Willis, Liberty Flames Football

Malik Willis, Liberty Flames Football

Liberty returns 20 starters from last year’s 10-1 team, giving coach Hugh Freeze’s squad a chance to win double-digit games once again in ’21. The offense is loaded with options at the skill positions, and dynamic quarterback Malik Willis leads the attack after helping this unit average 38.2 points a game last fall. The Flames have tough matchups at Syracuse, UAB and Ole Miss ahead, along with road games versus Louisiana and Army. However, 10 (or more) victories should be within reach for Liberty in Freeze’s third season.

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

Previewing Liberty's Offense for 2021 

What could Malik Willis possibly have in store for an encore? The electric junior, who had never started prior to 2020, emerged on the scene as one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks by leading all FBS signal-callers with 944 rushing yards to go with 34 total touchdowns and 2,260 passing yards. Here's the scary part: Willis joins nine other starters who return from a unit that ranked 15th nationally in total offense, ninth in rushing, 17th in third-down conversions, and eighth in time of possession.

Noah Frith battled injuries for a good part of the campaign but is back and expected to become Willis' primary option at wide receiver. Pearl River (Miss.) Community College transfer Stetson Moore is an intriguing prospect at either outside receiver or tight end, and head coach Hugh Freeze has compared the 6'4", 230-pound Moore's skill set to that of Evan Engram. Slot receivers DJ Stubbs and Demario Douglas are expected to again be viable targets. Jerome Jackson, Johnny Huntley and Trevor Hobbs are slated to receive ample time at tight end, a position that has flourished in Freeze's offense.

The entire starting offensive line returns and will be tasked with giving Willis passing and running lanes, and also clearing paths for Joshua Mack. For the second straight year, Mack was second on the team in rushing yards, and he'll again be the featured back. Utah transfer T.J. Green gives Liberty a third-down option with his speed and pass-catching ability.

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Previewing Liberty's Defense for 2021 

The majority of a vastly improved defense is returning, and the primary focus will again be on the defensive line. Liberty has eight to nine players who contribute on a weekly basis in the four-man rotation up front. TreShaun Clark emerged as the most consistent player from his defensive end position. Two players behind him on the depth chart, Aakil Washington and Stephen Sings V, have the potential to make big leaps this season.

Mike linebacker will have a new face as ULM transfer Rashaad Harding steps in opposite Aaron Pierre, the team's most pleasant surprise in 2020 with 41 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and a sack.

Javon Scruggs leads a secondary that shored up plenty of question marks a season ago with impressive play. Chris Megginson, who played anywhere from cornerback to free safety as a freshman in 2019, became comfortable as the team's top cornerback. UTEP transfer Duron Lowe provides added experience opposite Megginson, and Washington State transfer Skyler Thomas is expected to contend for playing time at the hybrid strong safety/nickel back/outside linebacker position.

Previewing Liberty's Specialists for 2021 

Alex Barbir kicked two game-winning field goals last season, his first as the primary placekicker. He ended 2020 strong with three field goals in the Cure Bowl triumph over Coastal Carolina and made kicks of 51 and 54 yards.

Final Analysis

The expectations for Liberty have skyrocketed after two seasons and two Cure Bowl victories under Freeze. The schedule, though, is quite a bit tougher this season with road games against Troy, Syracuse, UAB and Ole Miss headlining a grueling nine-game stretch. And the two home games to close the season won't be any easier: Louisiana and Army visit Lynchburg, and both will be seeking bowl bids of their own.

National Ranking: 39

Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions

(Malik Willis photo courtesy of Liberty Athletics)