Joshua Mack didn’t get many carries last weekend in Liberty’s lopsided victory over Louisiana-Monroe. In fact, Mack didn’t start for the first time this season and was held to less than 100 yards after reaching the century mark in the first three games.
But that didn’t contain the excitement the redshirt senior had in the celebratory locker room for the Flames’ upcoming game at Syracuse. Mack, a Pittsford, New York, native, was going to suit up in a college football game 90 minutes from his hometown. He hadn’t played in his home state since 2017.
“I talked to him in the locker room after the game and he’s excited about going back to his home state,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said Monday.
Mack, who was among the top running backs at the Football Championship Subdivision level when he was at Maine in 2017, is 12th in the nation in rushing yards and a major reason why the Flames have enjoyed success running the ball this season heading into Saturday’s noon kickoff at the Carrier Dome.
“It makes me very happy,” Mack said. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 6 to play at the highest level, to be looked at as one of the best backs in the country.”
Mack stepped into the starter’s role following Frankie Hickson’s graduation and hasn’t missed a beat with an increased workload. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Mack ranks 12th in the nation with 359 rushing yards despite only registering 22 yards on seven carries against ULM.
Liberty (4-0) ranks seventh in the nation with 250.8 rushing yards per game, and the Flames are one of two teams to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards (Army is the other).
“His biggest attribution is how he puts everybody first,” running back Peytton Pickett said of Mack. “He wants everybody else to succeed before he does. He wants everybody else to get out there and do their best. That’s an awesome trait to have. That’s what I see in him.”
Mack is returning to his home state for the first time since suiting up for Maine. The Black Bears played at Stony Brook in 2016 and Albany in 2017, but both Stony Brook and Albany are located on the eastern side of New York.
The 2017 season was particularly special for Mack. He led the FCS with 133.5 rushing yards per game as a sophomore, and that success prompted him to enter the transfer portal and see if he could duplicate that production at college football’s top tier.
Former Liberty coach Turner Gill and his staff saw the potential in Mack and offered him the opportunity with the Flames.
Mack never got the chance to play for Gill, but Freeze has benefited from the running back’s presence with the program.
“I think he’s doing a nice job of maturing as a young man and he’s our go-to guy at running back,” Freeze said. “He kind of reminds me — and I’m not saying he’s on the level of [New York Jets running back] Le’Veon Bell — but he’s very patient like him. He’s patient to the hole and then he gets through the hole pretty quick.
“He typically, even for his size, falls forward a lot. You very rarely see him going backwards at contact,” Freeze added. “He doesn’t have top end speed, but he’s fast enough to have explosive plays. He pass protects very well, too, this year, which is a big improvement from last year. I think he’s a pretty complete back. I think his patience is how I would describe him in the run game.”
Mack, as Hickson’s backup last season, rushed for 792 yards and seven touchdowns on 136 carries. He reached the century mark three times in 13 games, a number he matched in the season’s first three games.
“I think the game is coming slower, but that has to do with the amount of knowledge I’m gaining,” Mack said. “I’m steadily learning the game more from [running backs coach Bruce Johnson] and [offensive line coach Sam Gregg], and the more they’ve given me, the more I’ve put in my toolbox. The more I know, I can slow it down in my head mentally. ‘Oh, I’ve seen this in practice before. Oh, I’ve seen this in practice before.’ So when it comes Saturday, I’m not too surprised, nothing shocks me. Just gathering knowledge through the week.”
When quarterback Malik Willis missed the Oct. 3 matchup against North Alabama with a left-elbow injury, Mack was asked to deliver on the ground. His former Maine teammate, Chris Ferguson, started at quarterback and found success in the air after Mack churned out yards to get the Flames into the red zone in a dominating second half.
Mack had a season-high 130 yards on 16 carries against the Lions.
He rushed 23 times for 100 yards in the season opener at Western Kentucky, and he hasn’t reached the 20-carry plateau in the past three games.
“He’s a special player. It’s obvious when you watch him. He has unbelievable vision, he has some really good moves down the field on his cuts and his jukes and different things like that,” Ferguson said of Mack. “He’s a confident kid to have out there and he wants the ball. I think that’s the biggest thing. He wants the ball in his hands and is a playmaker. When you have a kid like that that wants the ball and wants to go score, wants to go get the first down, you’ve got no problems giving the ball to him and letting him go to work. Obviously every week he’s going to keep continuing to get better. He’s going to continue just getting better and growing. I hope he keeps this up every week.”
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