At first, Hugh Freeze’s Liberty offense wanted to go fast.
The Flames were quick to the line of scrimmage in the early part of their season-opening trip to Southern Miss this September. It was clear to USM defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong that tempo was the goal. The Flames were trying to confuse a Golden Eagles defense that had undergone a transfer portal makeover in the offseason and was being put to the test for the first time.
Only it wasn’t really working. Liberty went into the half with 10 points and an injured starting quarterback. When Freeze’s offense came back out onto the field to start the second half, the approach was totally different.
“They were shifting and motioning and looking over to the sideline to try to get into the perfect play,” Armstrong recalled.
Freeze, Armstrong said, was now trying to shrink the game. He’d abandoned his initial game plan in favor of something far less appealing to the eye, opting to lean on his defense in a game the Flames eventually won, 29-27, in quadruple overtime.
That willingness to adapt to what the moment called for is one of the things Armstrong respects most about Freeze’s football mind. The new Auburn coach has ideas and philosophies, but he won’t stubbornly stick by them in situations where they don’t help his team win, as some other offensive-minded coaches might.
“A thing that gets in the shuffle is he understands how to win the game,” Armstrong said. “A lot of play-callers, their main objective is to score points, which is certainly part of the deal. But he knows how to play to win. Sometimes you’ve gotta win 45-42, sometimes you’ve gotta win 20-17. He has a good feel. Some weeks your defense is going to stop them and you can play a little bit more conservative. Some weeks you gotta score every time you have the ball.”
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Freeze went 34-15 during his four-season stint at Liberty. He brought the Flames into the AP Top 25 in two of those seasons, winning three bowl games along the way. His offense averaged over 400 yards per game in each of those four seasons, and over 30 points in three.
At Ole Miss in the SEC, Freeze’s offenses weren’t quite as consistently excellent, but they were above average in four out of five seasons. The highlight came in 2015, when Freeze and Chad Kelly led the Rebels to 10 wins and 517.8 yards total offense per game.
The peak of Freeze’s Liberty career came in 2020, when his Malik Willis-led attack went 10-1, averaged 38.2 points more than 480 yards per game and 6.7 yards per play.
“Schematically, they’re just a normal kind of college offense,” Armstrong said. “Tight end in the core off the ball. Running gap schemes, throwing RPOs, vertical shots in the passing game.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee Freeze will even call the plays at Auburn.
In his introductory news conference, he hinted at delegating those duties to an offensive coordinator. Even if he chooses that route, his influence will no doubt remain.
“What spurred it on, truthfully, is some of the texts I’ve gotten,” Freeze said. “… I’m like, ‘Wow, they’re really good at what they do. Probably better than me. And I think I’m pretty good at it, but I’m honest. So I’m wide open right now and looking forward to having some of those discussions with these candidates.”