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'We have to be physical': A look at how a group of undervalued, overlooked offensive linemen became a strength for Liberty

'We have to be physical': A look at how a group of undervalued, overlooked offensive linemen became a strength for Liberty

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Tristan Schultz arrived on the Liberty campus just as the calendar was turning to 2017. The offensive lineman, who was coming off an undergraduate season at Fork Union Military Academy in which he had no other reported offers, joined a group littered with players who were either underrecruited or had walk-on offers.

The Flames, during Schultz’s recruitment and his subsequent arrival, were still in the Football Championship Subdivision.

The Turner Gill-led coaching staff prided itself in finding undervalued, overlooked linemen who played with a chip on their shoulder and possessed the work ethic to prove they deserved the opportunity to start at the Division I level.

The month after Schultz arrived on campus, Liberty announced it received a waiver from the NCAA to transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The mindset, though, didn’t change for Schultz and the rest of the offensive linemen.

“Honestly, right when I got here at Liberty, that was the mentality. We have to be physical,” Schultz, the Flames’ left tackle for the second straight season, recalled Tuesday. “While we were playing FCS, we were an undersized team. Now we’ve made the FBS jump, we’ve had to be physical no matter what every single game.”

An offensive line filled with seniors who were recruited to play at the FCS level, coupled with a mixture of younger linemen who were part of the program’s initial FBS recruiting classes, have developed a rapport and camaraderie centered on playing more physically than their opponents. Their goal each game is to establish the line of scrimmage, push around opposing defensive lineman and allow the Flames to methodically wear down those foes.

The unit has met its goal five times to open Liberty’s altered 2020 season. The offensive line has become the strength of a high-powered attack that ranks sixth in the nation with 268.2 rushing yards per game. While quarterback Malik Willis and three talented tailbacks receive plenty of accolades for the chunks of rushing yards they’ve racked up, the front five is integral to the success by manhandling the defensive fronts against the likes of Western Kentucky and Syracuse.

“Our group is the tightest group on the team and we take pride in that. We don’t get the stats or any of that, so we have each other. I love playing next to all these guys,” redshirt sophomore right guard Brendan Schlittler said.

“Run blocking’s a mentality and I think that’s something that we have installed in our group,” he added. “That’s our standard and we’ll continue to do so.”

The offensive line’s success at creating massive running lanes for the likes of Joshua Mack, Peytton Pickett and Shedro Louis has Liberty (5-0) on pace to enjoy its most potent season toting the football since the 2008 campaign.

The Flames have racked up 1,341 yards and 12 touchdowns through five games this season, averages good for 268.2 yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry.

The 2008 team, led by future NFL standout Rashad Jennings, recorded 2,562 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns in 12 games. The averages came out to 213.5 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry that season.

That was the last campaign in which the Flames averaged more than 200 yards per game and better than 5 yards per carry.

“They’ve been doing an awesome job. You’ve got to tip your hats off to those guys,” Pickett said.

He has rushed for 293 yards, three touchdowns and is one of four players with at least one 100-yard rushing game this season.

“They’ve been working hard,” Pickett said. “They worked hard all offseason in the short amount of time we got as a team. They really worked their butts off, and it’s showing on the field just with their conditioning and how strong they are compared to our opponents.”

This season’s offensive line is made up of three seniors (Schultz, left guard Damian Bounds and center Thomas Sargeant) and a redshirt junior (right tackle Cooper McCaw) who were recruited when Liberty was still an FCS program. Schultz and Bounds were scholarship players, Sargeant had to wait until the end of the 2017 season to be placed on scholarship, and McCaw saw sporadic playing time on the offensive line and as a blocking tight end in 2018.

The top backups — Jonathan Graham and Jacob Bodden — joined Schlittler as part of the Flames’ first FBS recruiting class, the final class signed by Gill and his staff.

Bryce Mathews and Maisen Knight, two who have joined the rotation this season, were signed by Hugh Freeze and his staff.

“They did a nice job recruiting before I got here at that position, for sure,” Freeze said. “Offensive line is so much about chemistry and toughness. I think that group, whatever we may lack in athletic ability there, that they make up for in toughness and their mindset of their role on the team.

“I think [offensive line coach Sam] Gregg does a really good job with reminding them of that and taking pride and we should be the strength of this team. It’s a mixture of all of that.”

The Liberty running game struggled in 2017 with 1,532 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. The running game averaged less than 140 yards per game.

That season was Aaron Stamn’s first at Liberty as the offensive line coach. The group needed to adjust to Stamn’s coaching style and new faces on the line, like Sargeant at center.

The Flames enjoyed a better 2018 season, their first at the FBS level, with an average of 161 yards per game and 30 rushing touchdowns.

Sargeant and Schultz were prominent faces on the line as their bodies transformed with extra muscle, and Bounds was finally getting regular appearances in the rotation.

Those three played in every game in 2019, and they’ve been in there for every game again this season. Schlittler and McCaw have stepped in on the right side following the graduations of Dontae Duff and Sam Isaacson.

The backup rotation of Graham, Bodden, Knight and Mathews has allowed Gregg to freely rotate to keep the unit fresh as the game progresses. True freshman Will Buchanan has made appearances in the rotation with playing time at right tackle.

“It doesn’t matter who we get out there. There’s going to be five guys that are playing like one nickel and not five pennies,” Gregg said.

“It’s their team. They’ve decided we want to have a great group that’s unselfish and want to play hard, and it doesn’t really matter who’s in.”

The offensive line has created massive running lanes for the tailbacks to run through this season. Schlittler and Sargeant have created wide gaps on the left side for the speedy Louis to score touchdowns against Western Kentucky and Syracuse, and the line has taken over when the Flames need to win the time of possession battle and keep the defense off the field.

Each time the line has been asked to win the battle up front, they’ve answered with a hard-nosed mentality developed years ago by the three seniors. The mentality has been passed along to the younger linemen.

“We keep everyone accountable in our group. We expect everyone to do great. We push each other every single day in practice, workouts and everything like that,” Schultz said. “We knew before coming into each game, we’re going to be the most physical team no matter what.”

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