By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Gone is Liberty’s streak of seven consecutive 10-win seasons. Gone too are the Eagles four straight SCA titles and a run that saw the program claim district championships in eight of the last 10 years.
2017 was MV-BT/Liberty’s first sub. 500 season since 2007, a rare misstep for a program that has been one of Missouri’s best over the last decade.
But, legendary head coach Darin Acklin isn’t sulking, and his kids are far from disheartened entering this fall. In fact, this group has everything to be excited about in 2018.
After an 0-4 start, the Eagles went 5-2 down the stretch and return 15 starters from that team.
“We should be hungry for several reasons, one because we didn’t have a season like we have had in the past, and secondly because we have the biggest senior class since 2012.”
Liberty will have to replace All-Everything athlete Koel Orchard, but it’ll be done by a committee approach starting with junior quarterback Jaris Acklin.
Acklin passed for 1,339 yards and 19 touchdowns over Liberty’s final seven games last season. Coach Acklin believes the experience of having varsity reps and an entire offseason will aid in his development.
“Jaris did get much better as the season went on and has physically grown a lot since last fall,” said Coach Acklin. “He is a student of the game and watches a lot of film. Jaris does a good job critiquing himself on his performance and studying his opponents. With his high football IQ, it is easier to train and coach him because he wants to be successful.”
Acklin’s favorite targets from last season are also back with Andrew Holden (46 receptions, 665 yards, 8 TD) and Colten Foster (38 receptions, 502 yards, 4 TD) also back in the mix. Holden will also start at defensive end and Foster will again be starting in the defensive secondary.
There’s a stable of other receivers, including senior Landen Cooley and junior Coltin Weldon, Coach Acklin feels can be dependable because of their hands and route-running ability. Weldon will again start in the defensive secondary as well.
Senior Seth Stephens, junior Tanner Marshall and sophomore Austin Flygard will all see carries from the backfield. Acklin also suggests that there are some receivers that could see touches as well. Stephens (124 tackles, 16 TFL) and Marshall (88 tackles) will again start at linebacker defensively.
Making it all go will be a veteran offensive line unit, anchored by seniors Brodyn Kenaga, Bob Bews and Lance Wilson. All three will also start across the defensive line.
Kenaga is a four-year starter on both the offensive and defensive front and will again be counted on for his leadership.
“He’s a very versatile kid that can play all five positions on the OL; he’s a coach’s kid and has a high football IQ,” said Acklin. “He will be asked to be the leader of the OL/DL and to play any position at any time because he can handle it.”
Seniors Noah Reese and Ty Barnes, juniors Ben Bews and Matt Ledgerwood, as well as sophomores Braden Gastineau, Lucas Barnes and Devon Shoup will provide depth and competition to both the offensive and defensive line groups.
Per usual, Liberty will have one of the toughest schedules in Missouri, with nonconference road games against Class 3 Richmond and Class 4 Bolivar. That’s in addition to an SCA gauntlet that will feature Thayer and Ava, two of the state’s top projected Class 1 and Class 2 squads this season.
Acklin believes the recipe for Liberty’s success in 2018 is simple.
“We must stay healthy in vital positions to meet our goals,” said Acklin. “Once we get through the first half of the schedule we should find out our personality, what we can do, what we can’t do and prepare for the playoffs. Sometimes it’s not how good you are, but how good your opponents are when predicting outcomes.”
MV-BT/Liberty will open the 2018 regular season on Aug. 24 versus Richmond at Bolivar. The Eagles home-opener will be on Sep. 7 against Thayer.