By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
For nine straight seasons, MV-BT/Liberty ended the year with a conference and/or district championship.
After back-to-back empty handed campaigns, the Eagles will look to right the ship in 2019 – Darin Acklin’s 17th season at the helm.
Liberty will enter with plenty of momentum after winning six straight games before a season-ending district semifinal loss to Ava. The Eagles started 1-3 losing to Class 4 Bolivar, Class 1 power Thayer and Ava by a combined 18 points.
“The turning point last year and the year before is our schedule; our first four games are ruthless,” said Acklin. “We improved game to game as the year went on and it showed when we had Ava on the ropes in the playoff game. All four losses came within 10 points because our defense was pretty good and our passing attack was explosive, but not consistent.”
Liberty will look to improve that consistency behind a stable of returning standouts, led by senior quarterback Jaris Acklin.
Acklin passed for 2,626 yards and 30 touchdowns as a junior, giving him 4,490 passing yards and 51 touchdowns over the last two seasons alone.
Over his final five games he threw for 1,441 yards and 17 touchdowns, completing more than 62% of his passes.
Coach Acklin believes Jaris is ready to take the next step in his development as a quarterback with improved footwork and decision making.
“Jaris has played quarterback for us for two years. He keeps getting better every game, every year,” said Coach Acklin. “He has worked extremely hard on becoming bigger and stronger. This summer he went to three NFA Quarterback camps in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Indianapolis; he has improved in all aspects of the quarterback position. His feet work, his delivery, his velocity, his accuracy have all progressed.
“As an experienced quarterback, Jaris will have a lot of freedom to check off to plays he feels will put the offense in a better position to have a successful play. I don’t like to be conservative, I like to be aggressive on offense. If he stays healthy he could have a big year.”
With the graduation of Colten Foster and Andrew Holden, there will be plenty of opportunities for new faces to emerge as Acklin’s go-to targets. That responsibility will likely go to Zach Stretch and Coltin Weldon.
Liberty has a history of receivers putting up huge numbers, with guys like James Denton, Jensen Acklin and Brenton Bush being some of the beneficiaries.
Coach Acklin believes Stretch and Weldon could be next.
“As a staff, we feel like Zach and Coltin both have the type of potential to put up huge numbers,” said Coach Acklin. “Stretch is a tall, lanky type of receiver. He’s very athletic with good speed.
“Weldon is a Wes Welker type of receiver. He’s a good route runner and can move around to multiple receiver positions in the spread offense. He has excellent hands.”
Maybe the most important piece for Liberty’s offense is running back Tanner Marshall, who is back after rushing for 916 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior.
He’ll again bring balance to an explosive offensive attack, as well as the heart of the defensive unit.
“Tanner has started since he was a sophomore at linebacker and last year he started on both sides of the ball,” said Coach Acklin. “He will be leaned on heavily again this year on both offensively and defensively.”
In addition to Marshall, Stretch and Weldon will also be two-way starters for the Eagles.
Acklin will look for seniors Kaleb Hite and Ben Bews to be two-way linemen starter, with junior Braden Gastineau also making an increased impact. Juniors Lucas Barnes and Ben Stoops, sophomore Josh Baldwin and freshman Keegun Daniels will also add depth in the trenches.
Junior Austin Flygare and sophomore Tyler Watts could also see spell reps with Marshall, while juniors Zeb Cornman and Michael Shoup, as well as sophomores Kessler Heiney, Noah Jester, Jentry Ackin and Nic Alcorn, will all see some time at receiver.
Flygare, Watts and Alcorn will also compete for spots at linebacker. The defensive backfield has a stable of guys in addition to Weldon and Stretch, with Gabe Bishop and Dalton Pauly joining Shoup and a host of sophomores.
Ultimately, Coach Acklin knows his group could be in for another grueling start due to scheduling. Something that he’s grown accustomed to and is okay with.
The Eagles aren’t necessarily hunting regular season wins and conference championships, they’re looking for more postseason runs. Over the last 11 seasons, Liberty has won eight district championships with seven double-digit win seasons.
Prior to Acklin taking over, the program had just one district title (1993) and zero double-digit win seasons.
He’s been able to build something special and while the wins are important, it’s rooted in something bigger.
“We do talk about playing at a championship level and what it takes to be a champion,” said Coach Acklin. “We have high expectations for our players and we want them to use that as a football player but also in life. We want our young men to mature and become a working, responsible, make-a-difference kind of guy.”
Liberty will open the 2019 season at home on Aug. 31 against previously Class 4 Richmond.