Contributed By Harold BechardThe Salina Liberty Indoor football team began the 2019 season with its first preseason workouts last week at the Salina Fieldhouse.
Second-year head coach Heron O’Neal said around 30 players were at the first practice, with more players expected to arrive during the week. The team practiced four times last week and Monday through Thursday this week in preparation for Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. exhibition game at home in the Tony’s Pizza Events Center against the Kansas City Marshals.
O’Neal said first cuts will be made following the exhibition game. The team must get down to a 25-player roster – 21 active, 4 inactive – by March 21.
The Liberty were 10-4 last season and just missed advancing to the North Division championship game in the Champions Indoor Football league. The game ended with the Liberty at the one-yard line in a 45-39 loss against the Sioux City Bandits.
O’Neal had four veteran players speak to the team last week prior to the first practice. One of them – running back/receiver Tracy Brooks – said what most of the returning players are thinking.
“I think Tracy Brooks said it best today,” O’Neal said. “He said, ‘The reason I came back was to take that next step, to play in that championship game and win it. We were one yard away. I’ve been working my butt off the entire off-season and I hope you guys have as well, because I’ve been committed ever since we walked off that field.’ ”
Brooks is one of a dozen players on the roster who either played for the Liberty last year or played in previous years. Another is linebacker Brock Long, a former Southeast of Saline High School standout, who had an outstanding college career at Fort Hays State.
Long, a current assistant coach at Fort Hays State, played for the Liberty during the 2016 and ’17 seasons, and was the team’s leading tackler both seasons, posting 101 in 2016 and 98 in 2017.
Long (5-11, 220) was an All-CIF first-team selection for his efforts and led the league in tackles per game in 2016, then finished second in 2017. In two seasons, he amassed 199 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, seven forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, two sacks, and two interceptions.
“A very intelligent guy that plays with an edge,” O’Neal said. “He’s going to bring physicality to that linebacker position.”
Returning from last year’s team are Brooks, linebacker Travis Taylor, linebacker-defensive lineman Jake Latimer, offensive linemen Kamalie Mathews, Kelvin McCoy, James Tabor and Dana Harris, receivers Rashad Pargo and Daniel McKinney, defensive back Eric Johnson and kicker Jimmy Allen.
In addition to Long, receiver Ed Smith and defensive back Dontra Matthews played with the Liberty in previous years. Smith is back in Salina after playing for the Wichita Force last year.
“He kicked our butts last year, so I told him, ‘You’re coming back with us.’ ” O’Neal said with a laugh. “He’s the first guy I called on October 1, the opening day of free agency.”
O’Neal said the biggest battles in camp will be at the quarterback, offensive line and defensive line positions.
“There’s a lot of talent in those groups,” he said.
One of the biggest questions entering the 2019 season is, who will replace Derrick Barnard at the quarterback position? Bernard, who is now playing for the San Diego Strike Force in the IFL, passed for 1,766 yards and 49 touchdowns last season, and rushed for 636 yards.
The Liberty have brought in three quarterbacks to vie for the starting position – Andrew Jackson, who started the second half of last season for the Texas Revolution; Trey Cooper, who was the backup for the Kansas City Phantoms a year ago, and rookie Curry Parham from Tabor College.
That’s what is going to make it tough right there, there’s three of them,” O’Neal said.
“Like I told those guys in our offensive meeting yesterday, this is the best group of quarterbacks I’ve ever had at one time, and I’ve had some good ones in Colorado and Billings.
“All three have different backgrounds, but are very successful. And they’re smart. I would say the one key ingredient they have in common is they’re very intelligent.”
And, all three are big, physical players.
Jackson (6-2, 220) helped lead the Texas Revolution to the CIF Southern Conference championship game last season. He took over the starting position midway through the 2018 season for Texas, completing 105 of 220 passes for 1,090 yards and 27 touchdowns. He was a backup for Dodge City during the 2017 season and also signed a contract with the Liberty in July, 2017.
A native of Lansing, Mich., Jackson played his college ball at Seton Hall where he was a starter in 2012 and ’14, passing for 4,469 yards and 33 touchdowns. He missed most of the 2013 season because of an injury.
Cooper (6-2, 220) played his college ball at Mid-America Nazarene, passing for 2,525 yards and 20 touchdowns during the 2016 season and being named second-team HOA Southern Division during the 2017 season.
Parham (6-3, 250) played 21 games for Tabor during 2017 and ’18, completing 222 of 431 passes for 3,574 yards and 39 touchdowns. He also rushed for another 436 yards and 12 scores.
“It’s going to be very tough on the staff as well as being tough on them because they’re all good players,” O’Neal said. “They have great arm talent, their football acrument is very high, all three of them. They talk football, they take football seriously. They’re all trying to move up to the next level. They’ve been very successful in college, so it’s going to be a dogfight.”
Brooks will take over for Dominique Carson at running back. He also played slot back, defensive back and was a kick returner last year.
“The thing that helped him out was having Carson here last year,” O’Neal said. “He learned some different things and with Carson moving on, Tracy steps in now as as that bell-cow running back.”
Taking care of business up front will be four returnees from last year – Kelvin McCoy at center, Kamalie Mathews at right tackle, Dana Harris at left tackle and James Tabor as the backup. Mathews is a two-time first-team all-conference player.
Taylor (6-2, 228) returns as one of the leaders on defense. He was second on the team in tackles (77 stops), first in tackles for losses (24 for 113 yards), first in sacks (11.5-75) and was one of the more disruptive players in the CIF. He was named first-team all-league at the linebacker position, but O’Neal thought it should have been more.
“In my opinion, he was the best player in the league,” O’Neal said. “He makes more plays than anyone, not just in the run game, but also on special teams. He was a complete player and I truly thought he should have been the defensive player of the year.”
Matthews played for the Liberty in 2016 as a defensive back and was second-team All-CIF last year for the Wichita Force.
The Liberty, which opens the regular season March 23 on the road against Amarillo, will be part of the CIF’s Northern Conference with the Wichita Force, Sioux City Bandits and Omaha Beef. The Southern Conference features the Amarillo Venom, Oklahoma Flying Aces, Duke City Gladiators and Texas Revolution. Salina will play a 12-game regular season schedule with two bye weekends.
Salina Liberty Roster
Head coach – Heron O’Neal
League – Champions Indoor Football
Division – North
Last Year’s Record – 10-4
Quarterbacks – Trey Cooper, Andrew Jackson, Curry Parham.
Running backs – Tracy Brooks, Derek Kendall-Campbell.
Offensive Linemen – Maso Dodd, Dominique Johnson, Kamalie Mathews, Kelvin McCoy, James Tabor, Isaiah Trussell.
Receivers – Matthew Craig, Aaquil Ingram-Harrow, Anthony Jones, Joshua Lailson, Daniel McKinney, Rashad Pargo, Ed Smith.
Defensive Linemen – Dana Harris, Rayshawn Henderson, Marvin Hunter.
Linebackers/DE – Jayden Dobbs, Javier Dyer, Jake Lattimer, Brock Long, Travis Taylor.
Defensive Backs – Winston Green, Eric Johnson, Sean Kelley, Dontra Matthews, Aaron Ray, Kenneth Ridley, Tyler Stewart.
Kicker – Jimmy Allen.
March 16 – Kansas City Marshalls (exh.) 6:30 p.m.
March 23 – At Amarillo Venom 6:00 p.m.
March 30 – Sioux City Bandits 6:30 p.m.
April 6 – Texas Revolution 6:30 p.m.
April 13 – Bye
April 20 – Wichita Force 6:30 p.m,
April 27 – At Sioux City Bandits 7:05 p.m.
May 4 – Duke City 6:30 p.m.
May 11 – At Amarillo Venom 6:00 p.m.
May 18 – Bye
May 25 – Sioux City Bandits 6:30 p.m.
June 1 – Omaha Beef 6:30 p.m.
June 9 – At Wichita Force 4:05 p.m.
June 15 – At Omaha Beef 7:05 p.m.
June 22 – At Duke City 7:05 p.m.