SYRACUSE — Preparing to face the Syracuse University senior pass-rush duo of Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson had already presented enough of a challenge for 19-point underdog Liberty, and several internal setbacks have further inhibited the Flames entering tonight’s season opener for both teams.
New Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze is recovering from recent back surgery that could keep him off the sidelines, and the hope of a potentially dynamic and unpredictable two-quarterback system was erased when transfer QB Malik Willis’ appeal for immediate eligibility was denied by the NCAA on Wednesday.
The nationally ranked No. 22 Orange, meanwhile, will begin its first season among the Top 25 in 21 years and is coming off its first 10-win campaign since 2001. SU has won five straight season openers, including the past three under head coach Dino Babers.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 tonight at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va. and will be streamed on ESPN Plus but not televised on traditional cable and dish outlets.
Coleman and Robinson were each named to the Ted Hendricks Award Preseason Watch List earlier this week, making the Orange one of three teams in the country, along with Auburn and Notre Dame, represented by two players on the list of 37 in contention for the honor presented to the nation’s top defensive end.
“It’s awesome being able to play with somebody like that who just comes out and makes my game better every day,” Coleman said of his partnership with Robinson, which produced a combined 20 sacks last year to lead all two-player tandems in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I think we best complement each other with the competition that we bring to each other,” he added. “We’re racing, every play, we’re racing to get to the ball whether it’s in the quarterback’s hands or anyone else. We’re trying to be the first two to the ball and trying to beat each other there every time.”
Coleman (6-foot-3, 253 pounds) and Robinson (6-4, 260) each tallied 10 sacks last year, and are two of seven returning FBS players to finish with a double-digit sack total. Liberty edge rusher Jessie Lemonier, who will start on the opposing side today, is another returning player that registered 10 sacks in 2018.
Coleman and Robinson study film separately and often meet to compare notes before taking the field for practice. The duo’s familiarity was evident to teammates in preseason training camp that witnessed the twosome call out pre-snap reads to each other frequently.
“For us, being able to play with guys that we’ve been with for the past couple of years and knowing the ins and outs of the defense and when we have our help in certain situations, it definitely shows up in team situations,” Robinson said after a recent practice.
The Coleman-Robinson duo, expected to spearhead the strongest defense SU has possessed since Babers became head coach, is likely to apply unrelenting pressure on Liberty senior QB Stephen Calvert.
Calvert, a traditional pocket passer who threw for 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior last season, won’t be sharing QB duties with Willis as previously expected. The former Auburn QB must sit out the 2019 season following the NCAA’s ruling.
Freeze will coach his first game for the Flames following recent stops at Ole Miss and Arkansas State, but his location for game time had yet to be announced entering the day. He reportedly underwent back surgery on Aug. 16 after a potentially life-threatening strand of staph infection entered his blood stream. Freeze coached the Flames from a hotel near campus while he was recovering during the past two weeks, with cameras set up to watch each area of the field and communicating with fellow coaches via walkie-talkies. He is expected to either utilize a similar setup coaching from a booth in the stadium, or rejoin his team on the sidelines.
Liberty is coming off a 6-6 season and is entering its first year as full FBS members eligible to compete in bowl games. Today will mark its first home game against a nationally ranked opponent and SU will become the first power-five conference team to play at Williams Stadium.
“Hugh Freeze is the real deal,” Babers said during his weekly press conference. “We all know that, and this is a huge challenge. We had our troubles with Western Michigan coming out of the gate last year, and this guy knows exactly what he wants to do and he knows how to do it. This is a huge challenge, it’s Hugh Freeze against our defense, and we don’t have a clue what he’s looking to do.”