Salina Liberty ready to roll after COVID-19 wiped out 2020 season

Tracy Brooks may have lost an entire Champions Indoor Football season to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that didn't mean he sat idly by.

"I've been staying ready so I don't have to get ready. That's my motto," Brooks said Wednesday in anticipation of the Salina Liberty's 2020 season opener. "It feels really good (to be back) after being trapped in the house for however many months, not able to play the game I love."

Salina Liberty will face the Arlington Cowboys at 6:35 p.m. Saturday at Tony's Pizza Events Center.

While waiting for the CIF to resume operations, Brooks continued to work out and kept his football skills sharp by playing in a local flag football league. Veteran defensive back Dontra Matthews did the same in Wichita.

"Last year was very disappointing," Matthews said of losing the 2020 season. "We were hyped and ready to go with the first game of the season and then were on standby for a month and a half.

"I can't wait to get started."

Brooks is one of just two offensive starters back from the 2019 Liberty team that made it to the CIF finals before losing to Duke City in the Champions Bowl. But the defense returns almost intact with six starters back in the fold.

"The defense is going to be a key factor (early on)," Brooks said. "But we've got some talented guys on offense.

"I'm one of the most experienced guys, so I'll have to step up and lead the guys and show them the ropes."

The defense returns such familiar faces as ends Jake Lattimer and Travis Taylor, linebacker Naiquan Thomas and defensive backs Matthews and Isaiah Barfield. But much of the rest of the roster remains fluid.

Because the Liberty have had just one week off at the Salina Fieldhouse, Saturday's opener against the non-league Cowboys will serve as both a dress rehearsal and audition for the nine CIF games to follow.

"Basically, what we're using this game for is to see who will be with us this year," said third-year head coach Heron O'Neal. "This game will be a determining factor for about 85 percent of our roster."

Brooks, who led the CIF in 2019 with 773 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns, is a lock at running back, and Ed Smith returns at wide receiver after catching 32 passes for 458 yards and nine touchdowns. The Liberty also added Jauhem Hughes, a former all-CIF receiver with Bismarck.

But the quarterback position remains up for grabs with both Tyrie Adams and Mitch Kidd battling for the starting job.

"We have a great competition going there," O'Neal said. "We'll keep both of them because we have two great dual-threat quarterbacks and I'm super excited to see how that develops."

Adams, who played at Western Carolina, left that program as the school's all-time passing leader with 8,978 yards, and as a junior he became the only the ninth CFS player to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season.

Kidd led Redlands (Calif.) to the national playoffs as a junior.

"They're both talented guys," Brooks said. "I'm excited to see who will lead us under center."

The picture is clearer on defense, where the Liberty have experience at every level.

"With us, most of the vets are on that side of the ball, so we're probably a step ahead of the offense, just with our knowledge of the game," said Matthews, who led the team with six interceptions in 2019. "We have six starters back in key roles, so we just need to fill two spots — another corner and defensive lineman."

At the end positions, Taylor led the 2019 team in total tackles with 78 and in sacks with 6.5, while Lattimer had 44 stops, five sacks and a team-best 12 tackles for loss. Thomas finished with 72 tackles and led the team with 7.2 per game, plus had two interceptions and three sacks.