Before the North Carolina Tar Heels take the field against the Liberty Flames on August 30th, we talked to Chris Lang of The News and Advance to learn some more about the Flames. Lang covers the Liberty beat for the the News and Record, a newspaper based out of Lynchburg, Virginia. You can read his blog here and follow him on Twitter @ChrisLangLNA. Keeping It Heel’s questions are in bold and Lang’s answers are right below.
Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the 2014 Liberty Flames football team?
A: For strengths, you’d have to look first at the passing game. Quarterback Josh Woodrum is entering his third year as a starter and is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,581 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions, which are almost identical numbers to the player who was named preseason player of the year in the Big South, Coastal Carolina’s Alex Ross. He has his top three receivers back, and Darrin Peterson can be a game-changing deep threat on the outside. The Flames also have a lot of experience and three preseason all-conference picks on the offensive line. The biggest weaknesses, at this point, are the run game and the secondary, and that’s simply because of the “unknown” factor. D.J. Abnar is taking over for Des Rice at tailback after Rice blew out his knee during spring ball. Abnar has been a strong change-of-pace back, but he’s never been the lead guy. How will he respond to the extra responsibility?
Q: Who replaces Liberty product Walt Aikens, the fourth round pick of the Miami Dolphins in the 2014 NFL Draft, as the playmaker on defense?
A: Kenny Scott, a senior who has spent much of his time playing in the nickel, will replace Aikens at cornerback. But the big defensive playmaker to watch is safety Jacob Hagen, who led the team with six interceptions last year. He has good ball skills and is strong against the run as well. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he’s both rangy and athletic. He’s on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the top defensive player in the FCS.
Q: Who is one offensive weapon for the Flames that the Tar Heels will have to watch out for?
A: I already mentioned Peterson, but another returning receiver is Gabe Henderson, who played his high school ball in Raleigh and started his career at Liberty as a quarterback. Henderson had a strong season as the Flames‘ mid-range possession threat, finishing with 47 catches for 641 yards and three touchdowns. He’s an instinctive player, and his quarterback experience has helped him develop as a tough receiving threat. He likes going over the middle and isn’t afraid to take the big hit. He’ll be someone to watch.
Q: Who is one player set to have a breakout season for the Flames?
A: I’d expect a breakout season from nose guard JaRon Greene, who received a fair amount of playing time as a true freshman since LU dealt with injuries at the nose. He’s a two-dimensional player, a big bowling ball who can switch between being a strong pass rusher and a run stopper. Most of the emphasis will be on slowing right end Chima Uzowihe, which could open up some opportunities for Greene to become an impact player. He’s pretty fast for being a 310-pound tackle.
Q: Do you think the Flames can pull off the big upset and beat Carolina?
A: Past experience with FBS-FCS contests tell us to never say never, but an upset seems pretty unlikely. You’ve got a UNC team eager to prove it belongs in the Top 25, and Larry Fedora doesn’t seem to screw around with FCS opponents. Pair that with the questions that Liberty has in the run game and in the secondary, and it doesn’t make for a recipe for an upset. Liberty has played its FBS opponents well in recent years. The biggest loss was a 22-point loss at N.C. State in 2011, and that was a nine-point game in the fourth quarter before State put it away. Liberty beat Ball State in 2010. But this UNC team is by far the best the Flames have played. Can’t see an upset happening.
Thanks so much to Chris Lang for joining us!