Practicing patience

2013 Liberty Red Devils

2013 Liberty Red Devils


Stewart expects Devils to be ‘a work in progress’ early on

By Jimmy Kirby, Courier Sports

LIBERTY — Looking back on his first two seasons as head coach of the Liberty High Red Devils, Kyle Stewart realizes how blessed he was with athletically skilled players and the ability to run his option-based offense with a grind-it-out style of play.

The results were evident with a 9-3 record in 2011 and a second-round berth in the AA playoffs in his first season, and a 5-6 record last year and a first-round playoff loss at Ninety Six.

The difference between season one and season two boiled down to the defense’s ability to stop the opposition from scoring. In 2011, the Red Devil defense allowed 21.3 points per game, compared to giving up 31.5 points per contest last season.

Last season, seniors Brandon Alexander (1,179 yards) and Dalton James (741 yards) paved the way for the offense, with 1,920 yards rushing — 57 percent of the Devils’ season rushing total. James added 242 receiving yards, while Alexander passed for 656 yards and eight touchdown.

Alexander was a three-year starter at quarterback, while James blossomed his senior season and provided speed and size in the backfield. With their graduation, Liberty lost 63 percent of its offense, and Stewart knows he faces a tall task in finding their successors.

“It will be difficult to replace two high-caliber athletes,” Stewart said.

Not only did Stewart lose a big part of his offense, he also lost four of his five starting offensive linemen.

Heading into the 2013 season, the Red Devils will carry 19 seniors on their roster. Most coaches would be salivating to have a roster with that many seniors, but unfortunately for Stewart and the Devils, many of his seniors do not carry a great amount of game experience.

Stewart said his junior class is a bit smaller, but the numbers show 15 on the roster. What is more important is a few sophomores and freshman could find starting roles, particularly on the offensive line.

Stewart said he feels good about some of his young skill players, who he says are working hard, but also feels his squad will be a “work in progress” as the season goes on.

The biggest question to answer is how a new quarterback will take root after following in the footprint of Alexander.

Stewart will turn to sophomore Tyler Burgess, along with senior Kyler Hostetler to lead the Red Devil offense. Neither young quarterback has thrown a varsity pass, and both will have to read defenses that will surely stack the box against the option offense offense of Liberty.

“Tyler will start, but I don’t think we lose anything with Hostetler,” Stewart said. “I told both of them that they don’t have to do what ‘BA’ (Alexander) did for three years. He was a high-profile kid and they don’t have to be like him.

“Being smart and understanding the way our offense works and being able to stand in the huddle and command the respect and go out and execute, that’s all they have to do. I’ve communicated with both of them and want them to do the right thing. I don’t bring up other people’s names.”

Senior leadership will come from Tanner Chambers and Eric Sturtevant.

The offensive backfield will be anchored by Chambers at fullback. He gained 643 yards on 134 carries and scored four times last season. Chambers is a tough, physical downhill runner, Stewart said.

“I don’t need him to run a 4.3, I need him to get me four, five or six yards a clip, and we can handle that,” he said.

The Red Devils will also turn to a trio of players who saw playing time in the backfield last season. Erick Sanchez (79 carries for 459 yards), Heath White (40 for 223) and Eddy Mathis (22 for 135) will see the bulk of the duty this season alongside Chambers.

Sturtevant will return at left guard and lead an offensive line that could see two sophomores and a freshman at one time or another during the season.

“Our offensive line is going to be big time on technique this year,” said Stewart. “Our overall size and strength may not be where we need it to be for some of our lineman due to the fact we will be so young up front at times, and when we go up against a Chesnee, Pickens or Pendleton with those seniors who have been working out for four years, our hard work and technique will be key for us this year.”

At center will be either senior Carlton Marks or sophomore Sammy Vidal.

“Both of them have taken reps,” Stewart said.

Right guard will be in the hands of freshman Jacob Herman, and outside him will be sophomore Dee Mansell. Senior Ryan Crump will be beside Sturtevant at left tackle. Sophomores Trace Moore and Brayden Shirley could see action along the offensive front as well.

“That’s going to be a pretty young line for a Friday night,” Stewart said.

Stewart said his goal is to platoon and keep from having to play so many of his guys both ways this season, but injuries and each game will play a key role in whether that takes place.

Dolan Holder and Bryce Powell, both seniors, will be used at tight end and can also spread out and play receiver. Jordan Bash and Triston West will see time at receiver as well.

On defense, the Red Devils will show a more 4-3 look this season instead of the 4-4 approach they have used in the past.

“We hope to pressure the ball a little bit more this year,” Stewart said.

Liberty has all of its secondary returning, and Stewart thinks the unit could be pretty good.

“Sanchez has looked great at our rover/strong safety spot. He likes that spot and really wants to play there,” Stewart said.

Payton Dameron will return at free safety. Dameron also provides the defense the ability to pull him up to the box to stop the run. He is a very good tackler, according to Stewart.

Chandler Crawford, Mathis, Hostetler and Tyler Carson will see time in the secondary at cornerback.

Stewart said that Andrew King will anchor the defense at linebacker for the Red Devils.

“We seem to cycle through linebackers,” Stewart said.

Two years ago the Red Devils had Matt Uselman, and he was followed by Parker Ford. Now King follows both of them.

“He’s football-smart, does his homework on the game, pays attention and is an incredibly hard worker,” Stewart said of King.

Others who will see time at linebacker are Shirley, Sturtevant and Marks.

The defensive line will be anchored by juniors Bradley Adcox and Amos Welborn. The two are some of the bigger players on the Devils’ roster and will be run-stoppers for Stewart’s squad. Moore, Powell and Crump will see duty as well along the defensive front, along with junior Austin Henderson and sophomore Charlie Meinders.

Sanchez will handle the place-kicking, and Marks will take care of the punting duties for the Red Devils.

Stewart said the goal for the Devils this season is to progress as the season goes along and get comfortable with who they are. Their identity has been established as an option team that uses a lot of formations, and that is what they plan to be.

Stewart said that Chesnee and Pendleton should be the favorites this year in the region because they are generally strong year in and year out. Crescent is on the rise, and Landrum always plays the Red Devils tough. Powdersville will have its first senior class this year as a new school, and Carolina and Blacksburg always have a number of excellent players to work around.

Liberty will play an unbalanced schedule of games this year, as there are only four home games on the schedule. The Red Devils will host Walhalla, Landrum, Blacksburg and Pendleton.

The longest road trips for the Red Devils will be to Chesnee and to Crescent, while visits to Travelers Rest, Pickens, Powdersville and Carolina will be a little closer to home.

Three of the Devils’ first four games are on the road, so it could be a challenge early for this inexperienced group of players without a lot of game experience under their belt.

Stewart knows that that are no certain wins on the schedule, but he believes in this group of players and has his sights set on improving last year’s win total.

When you graduate the caliber of players that have come through the last couple of seasons, it is hard to replace the talent year-in and year-out. But with a lot of work and a few surprises along the way, Liberty fans can rest assured that this group of Red Devils will be competitive throughout the season.