Josh Aldridge opened his second press conference as Liberty’s interim coach with a perfect description of how the football season unfolded. He raised his right hand and placed it level with his head when describing where the team was following wins over BYU and Arkansas, then quickly lowered it below the table in front of him as he talked of the three-game losing streak to conclude the regular season.
The Flames reached a peak in the season’s ninth game many never expected the program to reach so quickly in their FBS infancy. The immediate fall into the valley was just as unexpected with loss after loss stacking up, and it ended with a feeling players hadn’t experienced since the program’s final season in the FCS ranks.
Liberty wrapped its final season under Hugh Freeze’s guidance with two of the program’s marquee triumphs. It also lost in a bowl game for the first time as a two-point setback to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl marked the first time the Flames ended the season with a loss since 2017.
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“I still think they had a great season with probably the two biggest wins in school history in back-to-back games,” said Aldridge, who served as the co-defensive coordinator during the season and was the interim coach for the bowl game. “They’ll never be able to take that from us.”
Freeze helped transform the Flames from FBS newbie to one of the more respected Group of Five programs during his four seasons. The highlights include three bowl victories, wins over teams from the ACC (Syracuse and Virginia Tech) and SEC (Arkansas), and being ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll in both the 2020 and 2022 seasons.
The dominating home triumph over BYU and thrilling road win at Arkansas ultimately led to Freeze accepting a coaching offer from Auburn, and the Flames weren’t the same after the win over the Razorbacks.
The loss of running back Dae Dae Hunter to a season-ending injury coincided with Liberty’s losing skid to end the season. Hunter had 854 rushing yards and eight touchdowns when he suffered the setback at Arkansas, and he was on pace to be the Flames’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Frankie Hickson in 2019.
Liberty’s inability to have a featured tailback in the fourth quarter prevented it from sustaining fourth-quarter drives against UConn and Virginia Tech. The Huskies and Hokies took advantage with go-ahead scores.
The Flames ended the season on a four-game losing streak — their longest skid to end a season since a 10-game slide in 2005 during Ken Karcher’s final campaign — and the bowl loss to Toledo was the first postseason setback since joining the FBS ranks.
“I know that, obviously, we’ve had our share of injuries and all of that, and losing Dae Dae and some linebackers. Nothing will take away what these seniors have done for this program to elevate it to the point where our expectations are so high, and obviously to win against Power Five teams,” Freeze said after the Nov. 26 loss to New Mexico State. “This is our fourth consecutive year with at least eight wins and it’s disappointing and really stings that we didn’t finish the season better.”
Freeze and the Flames reached the eight-win mark despite starting three quarterbacks (Charlie Brewer, Kaidon Salter and Johnathan Bennett) and playing a fourth (Nate Hampton). The quarterback carousel saw Bennett lead the Flames to wins over BYU and Arkansas, while Salter emerged as the signal caller of the future.
Liberty won as frequently as it did because of a defense that led the nation in tackles for a loss. The defense also ranked fourth in the nation in sacks, 15th in interceptions and 19th in third-down defense.
The unit carried the team throughout the season and was the reason the Flames had an opportunity to tie Toledo late in the fourth quarter of the bowl game.
The defense was led by free safety JaVon Scruggs (Appomattox), linebacker Mike Smith Jr., bandit Durrell Johnson and defensive tackles Kendy Charles and Dennis Osagiede. The core made sure the unit stuck together, even after Freeze left for Auburn two days after the regular season’s conclusion.
“For the most part, I feel like it kind of brought us closer together and kind of showed us at the end of the day it’s always been us,” linebacker Aakil Washington said. “We have to help keep up the culture and just keep everything on the same path and not let everything that happened throw the whole boat off and have us crash. It has brought us closer together. I feel a lot more brotherhood in the locker room now that everything has passed. It’s helped us out a lot more than it’s messed up.”
Liberty will lose the leadership of Scruggs, the production of Johnson, Osagiede and wide receivers DeMario Douglas and Caleb Snead (Heritage) but will return plenty on both sides of the ball for the start of the Jamey Chadwell era.
“I’m super excited and I think that this is just going to be an opportunity to show just how we rebound and how we’re going to have our mindset going forward because we’re not stopping, we’re ready to keep rising,” right guard Brendan Schlittler said. Schlittler is one of four starting offensive linemen returning in 2023.
Chadwell, hired less than a week after Freeze’s departure after a successful tenure at Coastal Carolina, inherits an offense that will bring back Bennett, Salter and Hunter. The defense will feature Smith, Charles, Washington and others.
Liberty is projected to return seven starters on offense and seven on defense.
“He did a great job here and obviously left a good foundation and hopefully we can build off it,” Chadwell said of inheriting the program from Freeze.
Liberty, after years roaming in the wilderness known as FBS independence, will become a member of Conference USA on July 1. The Flames will be part of a new-look league that includes Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, FIU, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State.
It will provide the Flames an opportunity to finally compete for a conference championship and potentially be the highest-ranked G5 team for an avenue into the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff beginning in 2024.
Liberty enters C-USA with the highest-paid coaching staff, top-of-the-line facilities and an opportunity to immediately contend for league championships.
“That’s exciting for me. When you put an outstanding coach together with a university that has a strong commitment to football – our resources, our facilities, the uniqueness of our team – I think we’re set up to do some really special things in the years to come,” athletic director Ian McCaw said. “… They’ve invested in Liberty football and that gives us an opportunity to compete for conference championships and compete for the opportunity to participate in an expanded College Football Playoff.”