LAS CRUCES – New Mexico State travels to Liberty for the fifth meeting between the two independent schools, who are each set to join Conference USA next season.
The Aggies are 24-point underdogs on Saturday at 10 am (TV: ESPN+ Radio: 99.5 FM KXPZ) as Liberty is 9-2 this season, coached by Hugh Freeze, who signed an eight-year contract in October that will pay him up to $5 million per year.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty athletics for the News and Advance and was able to answer five questions on the Liberty football program.
Las Cruces Sun-News: I believe Liberty enters C-USA as a favorite to win the league or be in the Top 3 from Day 1. They probably could have actually remained independent. What led to them deciding to join C-USA?
Damien Sordelett: There were multiple factors that led to Liberty leaving the independent ranks and joining a conference. The realignment cycle of 2021 made it apparent that future scheduling as an independent would be challenging with fewer independent programs and Power Five leagues potentially moving to nine-game conference schedules. Plus, with the chatter of an expanded College Football Playoff and a guaranteed path for the highest-ranked Group of Five champions, that made joining a conference more appealing. Liberty had conversations with the American Athletic Conference, Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA, and ultimately was offered a spot in C-USA. Liberty has aspirations of potentially joining a Power Five league, and the first step was getting its foot in the door and having a seat at the table.
LCSN: Hugh freeze signed a huge contract. What is the likelihood of him as the head coach next season or was that why they did the extension when they did?
Sordelet: Liberty has been proactive in each of the past three seasons when extending Freeze’s contract. Each time a coaching position comes open in the SEC, Freeze’s name is one of the first to be mentioned as a candidate. That is why the university has made a commitment to football so Freeze, his staff and the program will be the highest funded among the Group of Five programs beginning in 2023. The administration wants to make it more challenging for Freeze to return to the SEC, even if that means a move would present him a better chance of winning a national championship. Freeze and his family are happy in Lynchburg and he knows the commitment level is where it needs to be to contend for C-USA championships next season.
LCSN: What has Liberty done well this season?
Sordelet: It starts with the defense for Liberty. Freeze said when he took the job that he was going to build the program through defense and quarterback play. This season, it has been on the defensive side. The Flames lead the nation in tackles for losses (9.0 per game) and are second at 3.64 sacks per contest. The formidable pressure created up front has led to Liberty securing 14 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. Durrell Johnson leads the nation by averaging 2.0 tackles for losses per game, and his pressure off the edge (he also averages nearly a sack per contest) opens up possibilities for players such as linebacker Ahmad Walker (10.5 TFLs, four sacks and a team- leading 62 tackles) and strong safety Robert Rahimi (five interceptions) to make plays.
LCSN: What have been some deficiencies that you’ve noticed?
Sordelet: There’s really only one deficiency that has stood out and it comes at the most prominent position — quarterback. Three different quarterbacks have started, four have played, and the position is still in limbo heading into the regular-season finale. Charlie Brewer, a transfer from Utah who spent four seasons prior at Baylor, opened the season as the starter before breaking his right hand on the second offensive series. It has either been Johnathan Bennett or Kaidon Salter starting since Brewer went down. Salter, a redshirt freshman, provides the most upside, while Bennett gave the Flames stability as Salter recovered from a groin injury. The issue has been turnover. The two have combined to throw 14 interceptions and lose six fumbles this season. Even for all the good both have done, especially Bennett (wins over BYU and Arkansas), the inconsistent play has prevented the offense from taking off.
LCSN: Who are five players Aggies fans should know about?
Sordelet: Besides the three players mentioned on defense, there are two offensive players who have stood out throughout the campaign. Wide receiver DeMario Douglas has potential at the next level despite his 5-foot-9 stature. Douglas typically makes the first defender miss and turns screen and swing passes into big gains. The fourth-year sophomore leads the team with 66 catches, 899 yards and six touchdowns. He also added a 100-yard rushing game against UConn. Running back Shedro Louis has taken over as the featured tailback following the season-ending injury to Dae Dae Hunter. Louis has 454 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He is an explosive kick returner with two career touchdowns, including a 97-yarder this past weekend against Virginia Tech.
Jason Groves can be reached at 575-541-5459 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jpgroves.