By Kevin Connelly
The Liberty Leopards have a history to be proud of and potentially a bright future. The trick this season will be adjusting to their third head coach in as many years without missing a step.
In 2012, the Leopards reached the Division IV regional semifinals and finished 9-3 only a year after going winless. But Brian Jones, who had replaced long-time coach Jeff Whittaker, stepped down after one season in June.
Two weeks later, former Ursuline assistant Kevin Cylar was given the keys to a program he believes is state championship material.
Despite a new coach, and many new players, a transition year is not what the Leopards have in mind.
Senior signal-caller Asim Pleas will be under center again for the Leopards after accounting for 13 total touchdowns last season. Cylar said he’ll be the “catalyst of the offense,” along with running back DaQuan Carter, who’ll be making plays with his feet.
“We’ll be fast, we’ll be up-tempo, and we’ll be physical,” Cylar said of his offense’s style. “We’ll go right at it.”
In the trenches, Chayton Gilcher (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) will lead the way for the Leopards’ running attack. He felt the transition between coaches went about as smooth as possible, noting the importance of having familiar faces in the huddle.
“Asim’s a really good leader for us,” Gilcher said. “I can always depend on Asim to get us to where we need to be and be the one to carry the team on his back if he has to.”
Cylar needed only one word to describe his defense’s mentality: physical.
As an understudy of former Ursuline assistant coach Rollen Smith, Cylar prides himself on his players’ toughness, saying that’s the one thing his mentor instilled in his players each and every day.
“You have to out-hit people and that starts with our mentality,” Cylar said. “Physicality will sum up our defense.”
“Big Chayton” will be responsible for providing the physical play up front, however he wants to see the defense improve in another important area.
“Mental toughness,” Gilcher said. “Last year, we had a couple plays that we shouldn’t have let happen because people were jumping offsides and stuff like that, so mental toughness is the one thing we have to work on the most.”
Carter is back as Liberty’s leading tackler from last year, but the coaching staff hopes their starting safety doesn’t have to make 97 stops again.
Sophomore Brendan Gilmartin will be responsible for the kicking duties, while Carter and Tarik Muse will be relied upon in the return game.
The Leopards lost the bulk of their offensive production from last season. Sherron Walls rushed for 1,866 yards and 26 touchdowns, so replacing him is no small task. Liberty also lost its top two receivers.
If the Leopards can replace some of that production and adjust to another head coach, they could be a playoff team for the second year in a row. The players and staff have even higher expectations than that.
“The first thing in life that you want to do is believe,” Cylar said. “It’s something we talk about constantly, because that’s why we’re out here. We want to win a championship.”