Virginia Tech Football: Liberty Q&A Preview

Read up on the Flames on the eve of the Hokies' 2016 football season.

Turner Gill gets the ice bath. [Liberty University]

College football season is finally upon us. After an eventful offseason highlighted by the retirement of Frank Beamer and the subsequent arrival of Justin Fuente, the Hokies will kick their 2016 campaign off Saturday afternoon against FCS foe Liberty. Led by former FBS head coach Turner Gill, the Flames arrive in Blacksburg looking to replace record-setting quarterback Josh Woodrum.

To get some first-hand insight on the Flames' progress ahead of the season-opener, I spoke to Liberty beat writer Damien Sordelett of Lynchburg's The News & Advance.

JC: Many Virginia Tech fans may be surprised to read that Turner Gill is set to begin his fifth season as the big whistle at Liberty. Perhaps more well-known for his time at Buffalo and Kansas, how has Gill been received in Lynchburg and what sort of expectations do his Flames carry into the 2016 season?

DS: Gill has been received well in Lynchburg. He and his family have fit in well with the culture at Liberty and his daughter, Margaux, graduated from Liberty. As far as expectations, it is playoffs or bust now. When the football team advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in 2014, won a first-round game at James Madison and played tough with Villanova, the bar was set for the program to continue making postseason appearances and advancing deeper each time. Last season's 6-5 record with all of the talent the team had (Josh Woodrum, Darrin Peterson, Chima Uzowihe and John Lunsford to name a few) made it perfectly clear that any sort of underachievement will not be tolerated. The Flames face another challenging season from a scheduling standpoint -- two FBS games against Tech and Southern Methodist, and a home game against FCS runner-up Jacksonville State -- so winning the Big South Conference will be the goal.

JC: The departure of quarterback Josh Woodrum leaves a sizable void at signal-caller for the Flames. How have Woodrum's replacements fared this offseason and what can the Hokies expect from presumed starter Stephon Masha under center?

DS: Masha's ascension to starting quarterback was expected, so Gill set the wheels in motion during the offseason to cater to Masha's strengths. Quarterbacks coach Joe Dailey was promoted to offensive coordinator and Aaron Stamn's role was reduced to tight ends and fullbacks coach. Stamn's system was pro style and fit Woodrum's strengths. Dailey is utilizing an up-tempo attack to best utilize Masha's dual-threat ability. Woodrum, who was in camp with the Giants and Colts before being released, had the build to run a pro-style offense. Masha is 6 foot 1 and 205 pounds, and he is suited better to work out of the pocket and use his feet to keep plays alive. Masha spent the offseason working on his footwork in the passing game and improving on reading through his progressions before he takes off when a play is not there.

JC: Schematically, what do you expect to see from the Flames' offense in Blacksburg? Does Masha have the weapons to threaten the Hokies' defense in space, or will the Flames opt for a more conservative game-plan playing in a hostile Lane Stadium for the first time in school history?

DS: The Flames will run the up-tempo offense and, honestly, that is about all anyone knows. The coaching staff has remained tight-lipped with what we will see out of the offense and the two opportunities to see the team since the end of last season has produced very vanilla results. The pro-style look featured a pistol formation with two tight ends and normally two wide receivers. The limited look at the up-tempo scheme has featured a more traditional shotgun look with the running back lined up next to the quarterback. Gone is the blocking tight end and all that remains of that unit is the Y. There will likely be three to four wide receivers to spread out the defense in an effort to open up the downhill running game. B.J. Farrow will likely be the top receiving threat at X and Dante' Shells at Z is the home-run threat. The three running backs Liberty will use all feature different traits. Todd Macon is the balanced threat, while Carrington Mosley is a power runner and Frankie Hickson adds the speed threat.

JC: On the defensive side of the ball, how will the Flames hold up against Tech's experienced offensive line? And in the secondary, how will the Flames attempt to limit the impact of both Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford?

DS: I'll start with the secondary since that is the area the coaching staff raves about with its potential, but also admits it is a unit that needs the most growth. Chris Turner, the team's top cornerback, is a sophomore and junior Tyrin Holloway has made tremendous strides after several breakdowns last season. The Flames' nemesis on defense last season with allowing the big pass play as evidence by the secondary allowing nearly 230 passing yards per game (that's the most an LU defense has allowed since 2008). Defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly didn't exactly say this Tuesday, but he made it seem like it will take a team effort to contain Hodges and Ford. He said Hodges is a mismatch nightmare and sees Ford being utilized in a multitude of ways so he can get the ball in open space.

Liberty's strength is on the defensive line. Nose guard JaRon Greene is the anchor of that unit and defensive line coach Vantz Singletary has raved about his skills since he was inserted into the starting lineup as a freshman. Greene is 6 foot 2 and 310 pounds and is the Flames' most NFL-ready player with his ability to get a push up the middle and absorb double-teams with ease. Juwan Wells is replacing reigning Big South defensive player of the year Chima Uzowihe at rush end and the staff likes his twitchy ability and getting a jump off the edge. Tolen Avery was used at end last season, but added 45 pounds and is starting at defensive tackle.

JC: Liberty is no stranger to ACC opponents, most recently providing scares to both Wake Forest and North Carolina before ultimately succumbing in the second half. With that experience in tow, how much confidence do you expect the Flames to bring to Blacksburg?

DS: The Flames are bringing plenty of confidence to Blacksburg. Liberty owns two FBS victories over the past two seasons, but those have come against teams from the Sun Belt Conference (Appalachian State and Georgia State). Liberty is 0-6 all-time against Power 5 schools, including the two games you alluded to in your question. The feeling in Lynchburg is if Liberty can win one of these big FBS games, then that will help the university begin to receive serious consideration when it comes to moving up to the FBS level once the next wave of conference realignment takes place.

JC: I'm putting you on the spot: who wins tomorrow, and why?

DS: Virginia Tech. The Hokies have more scholarship players and have a significant edge with their skill position players. Liberty will likely hang tough for two, maybe three, quarters, but Tech will likely pull away in the fourth quarter.


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