Football Coach Brandon Pennington has been at Liberty for less than a year.
It’s been a good year.
After posting the best record in school history (9-2), Wednesday was the day for big pieces of that success to start writing the next chapter in their book of life.
Quarterback Jaelen Ray and receivers La’Randy Swint and Elijah Stefanici each signed to Division III power Mount Union (Ohio), running back and defensive back Donavin Johnson will play for Anna Marie College in Massachusetts, and defensive end Tyrece Frater signed with Holy Cross, also in Massachusetts.
“I have no ulterior motives here,” an emotion Pennington said at Wednesday’s singing. "I want to win a lot of football games, I want to make better husbands and fathers, and I want to send a lot of kids to college. We won a lot of games this year, hopefully we’re working on the husbands and fathers part, and today we’re sending a lot of kids to college.
“Those are our goals, and it feels like we’re meeting these goals, we’re very thankful for these young men and I appreciate being able to be their coach.”
The Chargers potent passing offense from 2018 is nearly a package deal for the Purple Raiders, who since 2005 have been in the D-III national championship game every year except one, winning it six times.
“I don’t know what we did to impress Mount Union,” Pennington said. “If you’re going see a kid to Division III, that’s the place to go.
Ray had a breakout senior year, throwing for a county-leading 1,719 yards and 25 touchdowns while rushing for 844 yards and a county-high 20 more scores.
“My parents put me in this position. It’s been a long ride,” Ray said on Wednesday, taking in the enormity of the gym hall full of well wishers.
Pennington said Ray could be the Purple Raiders starter in 2019.
“That’s my understanding after talking to their coaches,” he said. “They run about the same (spread) we do, although I’ve never run a spread with a 220-pound fullback at quarterback, and that’s what they were looking for. In talking to their staff, he’s the guy they’ve been after this whole process.”
Those talks led to interest in Swint (39 catches, 773 yards, county-high 11 TDs) and Stefanici 10-315-2, highest per-catch average among those with at least 10 catches).
“So I finish telling Mount Union about Jalen, and they ask me, ‘Tell me about Stefanici,’” Pennington said. “I tell him he gets behind everybody and is sneaky. Runs great routs and does the things nobody talks about. Swint attracted safeties so it opened things up for Eli.”
Stefanici said those discussions this year opened the door for him to play college ball.
“I’ve had a lot of support, my friends and my coaches,” he said. “Now it’s time for that next chapter.”
College football is a book Swint said he’s looked forward to writing.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was four years old, and the goal has always been to go to college, play the game I love and be a better man,” he said. “Hopefully I can succeed and keep making my family name proud.”
Pennington said Swint was one of the last pieces of the puzzle to come together in this signing class.
“He’s a hardworking kid, desperate to be successful,” he said. “He was frustrated not getting the phone calls after the season that everybody else did.”
The calls came for Johnson, who also had talks with Ohio Wesleyan and Greensboro (N.C.) College, even though he was a moving target and was sidelined for a bit of his senior year due to nagging ankle injury.
“I only had two years at Liberty, but the coaches all treated me as one of their own,” he said. “My teammates treated me like a brother, so I just tried to be a good brother.
“My advice to those who come after me is to roll with every punch, and don’t stop working. There will always be adversity to work through.”
Pennington said Anna Maria targeted him because of his rock-solid character, which shows quickly in conversation with the versatile Johnson.
“He was a jack of all trades for us — running back, quarterback, safety and a little outside linebacker. We probably didn’t get as much out of him as we probably could have,” Pennington said. “He’s a high, high character kid.”
He and Frater were part of turnovers in the defensive win over Lake Nona this year. Frater, who also had talks with South Dakota State, recorded four sacks and two fumble recoveries this year at defensive end, where he played for Liberty — but said, essentially, “anywhere’s fine.”
“I have a passion for football, so I’m grateful for the opportunity,” said Frater, who noted FCS squad South Dakota State expressed interest. “I’ll play anywhere on the line they ask.”