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Liberty football working to turn program around

Scott Akin admits a change in culture has been needed with the Liberty Tech football program, and he says it’s happening.

And even though there’s still nearly a month until the Crusaders’ first game against cross-town rival Jackson Central-Merry, he said he can already see a difference.

“There have been some rough days, but this year’s coaching staff and this group of guys we have in this fieldhouse are all working hard and pulling in the same direction,” Akin said. “And that’s a night-and-day difference that you can see as much in July as in September.”

Akin was an assistant coach at Liberty in 2015-16, the two seasons former head coach Tyler Turner led the Crusaders to an undefeated season until they reached the Class 3A semifinals, followed by a one-loss regular season that ended with a loss in the state championship game to perennial power Alcoa.

After Turner left for Olive Branch, Miss., Akin eventually left to take an assistant coaching job at Milan. He returned in January of 2020 to become the head coach.

And then less than two months later, the world shut down for COVID-19.

“We lost 15 players that first day [of COVID],” Akin said. “And the whole dynamic changed.

“We went from setting goals to do this and win that and win this many games to just making sure we had the numbers to keep the team going and not shut us down. Because by that point, we were a 4A school but we were bringing fewer than 20 guys to games after not knowing who would show up for practice that week.”

It took a series of conversations with defensive coordinator Anthony Wallace and Ricky Catlett, deputy superintendent of Jackson-Madison County Schools who’s a former football coach himself, for Akin to determine what it would take to give Liberty football a chance to restore itself to the former glory of the two years of Turner’s coaching and the perennial power Turner’s predecessor, Steve Hookfin, had built with a region championship contender every season that was good for a run to the state semifinals every three years in 2009, ’12 and ’15.

“Everybody said that we’ve got to hold our course, whether we’ve got 10 guys coming to practice or 100,” Akin said. “And if it was only 10, then those 10 guys would be in drills and in practice every day and those guys would be ready on Friday night and then we’d fill in around them with the other guys that showed up.”

The struggles have been evident to anyone keeping up. A look at Liberty’s results over the last three seasons shows no wins on the scoreboard and one win in the record books because of a forfeit. The losses don’t show a lot of competitiveness from the Crusaders as four of those final scores indicate more than one score by Liberty in the game. And nearly all of their opponents surpassed 30 points.

Anyone looking for any positivity in those trends is that three of the four multi-score games came last year.

But Akin said the addition of a new offensive coordinator to the coaching staff has been a big help.

Scott Blair came over from JCM and is running the offense as well as coordinating the team’s strength and conditioning.

Blair was the head coach at Fayette-Ware who led the Wildcats to two of their most competitive seasons in school history in 2015-16 including getting two of their players to sign scholarships with Southern Miss.

“Between him and Wallace coordinating each side of the ball, I’m able to coach the line, and we’re all coaching the kids with positivity and pushing them to be better and they’re responding well,” Akin said.

Akin said there are about 50 kids showing up for summer workouts and practice. And the football team has been able to add more space since the school’s ROTC program has moved out of the fieldhouse.

“We don’t have a ton of space still, but we’ve got more than double what we had in years past,” Akin said. “And we’re able to do our lifts inside and then go outside when it’s not too hot according to TSSAA and do our agility and speed work out there.”

So will Liberty football return to its former place among the teams to be feared in West Tennessee football? That remains to be seen.

But Akin said he likes the buy-in from the players and the coaching staff as everyone is working together, preparing for three games against city rivals and seven region games that includes teams like Bolivar, Dyersburg, Westview and Covington.

“Our district will be tough, and these city games are always a battle because everybody wants to beat their friends and family members that live in the same town,” Akin said. “But I’m loving what I’m seeing from our guys, and I’ll stand with them and fight anybody in this state because I know the work they’ve put in and how hard they’ve fought for anything they accomplish this year.”

Brandon Shields,

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