NFL Draft analyst John Vogel previews the Liberty Flames ahead of the 2021 season. Predictions, pre-season grades, and more:
The 2020 season was a tremendous year for the Liberty Flames, who broke out on the year as a legitimate independent team. They finished the season 10-1, their single loss to North Carolina State (15-14), and ended the season with an upset win over Coastal Carolina.
Liberty is the picture-perfect example of a school that has used the transfer portal to bolster the team. Most of the prospects on this list are transfers that have become stars at Liberty. Under head coach Hugh Freeze, Liberty has become a force to be reckoned with. Another successful season and this school will be a competitor on the recruiting trail.
The three biggest and key games to watch for Liberty this year will be at Syracuse (Sept. 24th), at Ole Miss (Nov. 6th), and at home against Army (Nov. 27th). All three of those teams will be formidable tests. Ole Miss will be a must-watch game that day. It will field the most NFL-level talent and be a helpful evaluator.
Liberty Flames QB Malik Willis leads the group (R-Jr)
#7 | HT: 6’0″ | WT: 210 | High School: Roswell (Atlanta, Georgia)
If there is the possibility that a prospect can be overhyped in May for the NFL Draft over 11 months later, Willis has found himself in that position. Certainly, it’s undeniable that Willis has big-level traits. The transfer from Auburn has a huge arm and is an electric athlete. This combination of traits allows Willis to be solid as both a runner downfield and an improviser as a passer. Willis is capable of throwing off-platform with velocity and from many different arm angles.
There are major things that Willis will need to address to live up to the pre-season hype. Willis displays some decision-making flaws that stem from a lack of understanding of defensive coverages. When facing pressure, he tends to step away from throws and force the football off-platform. His release can be a little elongated as well, which doesn’t bode well for future success. He’s also not consistently accurate, even as a short pass thrower.
The upside is tremendous with Willis, but it’s hard to imagine him being able to fix all of this in one season. He’s an electric athlete and a competent runner. If he can fix half of these things and display that this season, there’s a good chance Willis goes early.
Pre-Season Grade – 3rd/4th round.
RB Joshua Mack (R-Sr)
#8 | HT: 5’10” | WT: 195 | High School: Pittsford-Mendon (Rochester, NY)
Joshua Mack will catch your attention on tape with his contact balance galore and ability to run with extreme patience. A transfer from Maine, Mack became the starting running back for the Liberty Flames last season and shared the backfield with two other backs who may become prospects in future drafts. However, Mack was the most reliable and balanced out of all three, running quickly and effectively.
The positives are his field vision and contact balance. Not many guys see the field, and he does and exhibits the ability to break tackles with ease. His body control is excellent, especially when fighting through defenders. He displays good hands in the limited capacity he was used as a receiver, too. I watched him create the proper angles to receive the ball.
The one thing that might really hold Mack back is his lack of speed. He’s sudden and methodical in his run-style, but top-end speed isn’t there. Very often, he’s getting tracked down by defenders from behind in the open field. This might concern NFL teams a little bit, but more power-based schemes will certainly like him as a rotational piece.
Pre-Season Grade – 6th-PDFA
Slot receiver DJ Stubbs (R-Sr)
#5 | HT: 5’8″ | WT: 180 | High School: University Christian (Jacksonville, FL)
DJ Stubbs is an explosive playmaker out of the slot, which was schemed effectively in space last season. One of the two players on this list who is not a transfer, Stubbs, has been a starter since the 2018 season and will have a lot of experience if he stays healthy in 2021. He’s been utilized out of both the slot and as the team’s Z receiver, displaying big-play threat and deep-ball ability.
If there will be one gripe to his game, it’s a fact small slot receivers are all over the NFL, pushing his value down the board. He’s not someone who breaks a lot of tackles due to his smaller build. His athleticism should be unquestioned in the process. Teams will look into the small injuries that he has had and wonder if he can hold up frame-wise in the league. He will immediately impact as a return specialist if called upon and has room to grow as a route-runner.
Pre-Season Grade: 6th/PDFA
H-Back Johnny Huntley III (R-Sr)
#1 | HT: 6’2″ | WT: 235 | High School: South Plantation (Plantation, FL)
Johnny Huntley III currently plays at the tight end position for the Liberty Flames, who use him as a receiver and an inline blocker. I’ve projected him at H-Back due to his lack of size. I think he’ll be looked at more in the NFL as a short-yardage receiver and blocker. Huntley transferred into the program in 2018 from Colorado and became a full-time starter last season.
I think he offers some value as a short-yardage receiver who will be most effective on bootleg action. He has the ability to sneak about, chip defenders before releasing into the flats. The further downfield he went, the less effective he was. I don’t believe he’s a guy who can stretch the field vertically. He’s not very fast either but is quick and sudden with his movements. He likely ends up on a practice squad, but he might have to show ability as a fullback in 2021 to get the looks he needs.
Pre-Season Grade: PDFA
Liberty Flames Defense: RUSH EDGE Durrell Johnson (R-Jr)
#11 | HT: 6’3″ | WT: 230 | High School: Overlea (Baltimore, MD)
Durrell Johnson, a JUCO transfer from ASA College, is the marquee pass rusher on this team. From a defensive standpoint, the Liberty Flames run a multiple scheme defense. They will switch between three and four-man fronts. Johnson is the player who alternates between standing up as an outside linebacker and rushing as a 7-tech from a three-point stance. That’s my definition of a RUSH EDGE from my grading standpoint.
I like what Johnson shows. His tape is excellent. He’s explosive, consistent, and produced as a pass rusher in 2020. He’s capable as a run defender as well, showing good range and pursuit ability. NFL teams will have two main concerns entering this season – just how athletic is Johnson really? Can he add size to his frame? He’s a little bit slim for the position currently, and if he’s going to be a RUSH EDGE, can he drop into pass coverage effectively? If he’s exclusively a pass rusher, it’s an intense class, and it’ll be not easy to separate.
Pre-Season Grade: 5th/6th Round
DT Elijah James (R-Sr)
#55 | HT: 6’4″ | WT: 295 | High School: Oswego East (Chicago, IL)
Elijah James is a JUCO transfer who earned the starting role for the 2020 season, entering the Iowa Western Community College program in 2019. Last season, he started 8 games and appeared in all 11, used primarily on run downs.
James isn’t really a pass rusher, which is a bit of a problem in modern NFL schemes. Most of the pass-rushing impact came from the Flames when James wasn’t on the field. He’s still raw and underdeveloped with his hands. While big, his frame could use more size so he could slide into a nose tackle role potentially, but he doesn’t move as well as you’d like to see, and more size could make that worse. Still, there is potential for James as a rotational piece in the league to help build depth.
Pre-Season Grade: 7th/PDFA
ROVER Javon Scruggs (R-Jr)
#1 | HT: 5’10” | WT: 180 | High School: Appomattox (Appomattox, VA)
I’ll be honest – I’m a sucker for ROVER types. I absolutely loved LSU ROVER JaCoby Stevens last season, and I love the versatility that the position brings to a defense. I also love defenders who are aggressive and play with high energy. That’s why Javon Scruggs will be one of my favorite players to evaluate in the cycle. Scruggs is the other player on this list who didn’t transfer to Liberty. He’s been a starter on this team since 2019, making 2021 his third full season starting.
Scruggs loves to hit people – that much is evident. He flies across the field and is often the man making big plays in the backfield and around the line of scrimmage. However, he’s undersized for the position – which may reduce him to a physical slot role. He will enter the league with much intrigue for certain, mostly for his physical play style. I think teams will worry about the size, but ultimately someone pulls the trigger on him for the polished ability and experience in the role.
Pre-Season Grade: 5th/7th Round
S Cedric Stone (R-Sr)
#23 HT: 5’10” | WT: 185 | High School: Independence (Charlotte, NC)
A transfer from Georgia State, Stone entered the Liberty Flames program in 2020 in time to practice in the Spring and steadily earned himself a spot in the back end as a deep safety. Stone started five games in 2020 while appearing in all 11.
Stone flashes instinctual ability as well as being a good tackler. That being said, the instincts don’t show consistently. Stone is not normally rallying to the ball. If he is, he’s there late after teammates have already cleaned it up. As a tackler, he’s not a great tackler in space. He works well to assist when he’s there, but it’s not great. Lastly, his impact isn’t great when he’s closer to the line of scrimmage; that’s problematic too for what NFL teams want in their safeties. His size isn’t great either, which pretty much spells a camp body for the NFL.
Pre-Season Grade: PDFA