ORLANDO, Fla. (CureBowl.com) – As a part of the FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl presented by the Orlando Sports Foundation, executive director Alan Gooch awarded Georgia Southern’s Rashad Byrd and Liberty’s Benjamin Alexander with Cure Bowl Community Service Soldier Medallions. The soldiers were recognized on Thursday at the FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl Press Conference at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort Convention Center.
Byrd is one of the most active Georgia Southern student-athletes with his community service hours. Some of the many projects that he has worked on include assisting at a local alternative school to help kids cope with stress, serving as an AIA leader, reading to kids in local elementary schools, speaking for Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) at William James and raising money for breast cancer research.
This year, Alexander has led the Flames community service efforts, which includes spending time in the Donuts with Dads at Linkhorne Elementary School, Flames Read Program, Trick or Treat so Other Can Eat and Dollar Makes a Difference programs. He also helped provide a meal to a family in need for Thanksgiving.
Festivities on Saturday kickoff at 10:30 a.m. with the FBC Mortgage March 2 Cure at historic Church Street Station. A block party at local bars and restaurants and activities for college football fans and families will be ongoing. The party gathers at the Historic Orlando Train Depot for a short program at 1:00 p.m. that includes dignitaries from the Orlando community. Then, the party marches to the gates of Exploria Stadium in a cloud of pink smoke, featuring both team’s bands, cancer survivors, cancer supporters and college football fans.
The fifth annual FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl presented by the Orlando Sports Foundation kicks off on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network. Fans can listen to the first all-female college football broadcast on the BowlDayRadio network, which includes iHeart Media’s Real Radio 104.1 FM.
Partial transcription of Thursday’s press conference: Georgia Southern Head Coach Chad Lunsford, Quarterback Shai Werts, Placekicker Tyler Bass, Linebacker Rashad Byrd and Cornerback Kindle Vildor and Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze, Quarterback Stephen Calvert, Wide Receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, Linebacker Solomon Ajayi and Safety Benjamin Alexander
Liberty Players – Quarterback Stephen Calvert, Wide Receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, Linebacker Solomon Ajayi and Safety Benjamin Alexander
What are your thoughts and how excited are you to be here for the Cure Bowl?
Calvert: ”We’re excited to be here. It has been a lot of fun so far, but we know we have to start switching gears to get our minds mentally ready for the game. The past two days been a lot of fun for us. I know that the guys have a lot of fun going out. Today should be a lot of fun, too. We get to go on the rides. We are definitely looking forward to that. After that, we have to know when to lock in and get ready for the game. I think Coach [Hugh] Freeze had done a good job talking about that and instill in us when to switch our gears to get ready for the game.”
What is it like being the group that has led Liberty to its first bowl game in program history?
Ajayi: “It is exciting knowing that we are a part of history and this is something that nobody will be able to take away from us. We are not really satisfied with just being here. I think that I speak for the rest of the guys. We are coming here with a mission. We want to win this game. We want to make history as being the first team to win a bowl game in Liberty history and not just be here. It’s exciting, but we’re not going to let the excitement of being here overshadow the fact that we have a game with win.”
What is the difficulty in preparing for Georgia Southern’s offense with just two weeks of preparation?
Ajayi: “We definitely feel confident. Our defensive coaching staff has been doing a great job of preparing us to get ready for this triple option. They have some good athletes, but I think that the scheme that they have given us and preparation will definitely have us ready for Saturday. We will be ready for them.”
What have you seen when scouting the Georgia Southern defense and how are they going to try and limit your prolific passing attack?
Gandy-Golden: “One is just so you focus, lock in and take care of the ball. With their style of offense, they rundown a lot of clock, so we have to make it count when we get the ball.”
Calvert: “We know a certain amount of coverages that they play. We just have to figure out when they are going to play them. We have a lot of good plays that attack each specific coverage that they run. I think once we get into the game and figure out their strategies and game plans and stuff. We will be able to communicate on the sideline and get things adjusted that we need to do to attack the right places on the field.
What does it mean to Stephen (Buckshot) Calvert to play back in the state of Florida?
Calvert: “Yeah. It is a blessing. All four years here, I have never had the chance to come home to play a game. What a chance to make it my last game? It is an honor and blessing to be out here. I have a lot of family members coming. They have not seen me play since my little league or high school days. I have a lot of friends come in. It should be a lot of fun. I am excited. It is an honor and a blessing to be back in my hometown.
Can you talk a lot about your volunteer and community service work you do here at Liberty?
Alexander: “At Liberty, we do a lot of community service work. Coach Freeze actually had the opportunity to help us out with Angel’s Army and we got to serve and provide for families all across America, which was a really great opportunity for us. We are required to get about 20 hours through c-serve at liberty. We just take that time to really give back and show that Liberty is more than just football. It is about community and family.”
Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze
“This is an honor. First of all, the fact that the Cure Bull operates in a mindset of doing everything within their power to make it a mission to effect cancer research and those that are affected by it, which if members of our team have not been affected by it yet in some way, shape or form. I would say stats would say that they will be, someone that they love and care about. I have experienced some love ones that have had that battle, and it is not one that anyone wishes to go through. To be partners with this bowl that strives to make an impact on that is first and foremost an honor that we can do that. I would think of all the bowl games that are being played. It would be hard for me to think of many whose mission would rank much higher than this one, so it is an honor to be a part of this bowl.
“Obviously for it to be the first bowl game in Liberty University’s history is very rewarding. It brings me great joy. I think the older I get, the more I love to see other people having joy. I mean, I enjoy it, too, but it really it gives me a sense of great satisfaction to see these seniors that have believed and the administration and the vision that was cast four decades ago or more by Dr. [Jerry] Falwell at that time. Then, the plans that have been laid forth for us to move into FBS and the seniors who went through all of that transition with some of the years being harder than others. There may have been nothing at the end to play for. Then, the first year that we have an opportunity to do that and end it here is something that can never be taken away from those young men. We’re thrilled to be here.”
On the impact the Liberty seniors have made in getting their team to a bowl game?
“Well, anytime you take over a program. Most of the programs I have taken over in my career have not been in great shape. That was not the case with this one. This one was just in a transition state and it was not in an bad state. Coach [Turner] Gill and the staffs that preceded us have all put in a lot of work into getting it to this point. Reality is that a lot of the kids recruited on this team were really recruited as probably FCS players. The biggest challenge was just the depth chart, not looking like an FBS depth chart. Thus, the role of the seniors is when you take over a new program, much less one that is stepping into the FBS level, whose depth chart may not be exactly right. The buy in from that group I think sets the whole tone for the year. They were very close to Coach Gill and his staff, so you are never quite sure how that’s going to be.
“I can honestly say that I don’t know of a single senior that was counted on for significant minutes that has not totally bought in. I think they were incredible. They are not real vocal leaders, but they are really good at leading by example. I like to have a mixture with a little more vocal leadership. Buckshot [Calvert] is one of the most humble, yet confident people I’ve ever been around and sometimes those don’t go together, but that is really him. I mean, he is truly humble, but man believes he can compete with anybody on any given day and I love that about him. Add in AGG [Antonio Gandy-Golden], obviously, and that combination has been very beneficial to us. Defensively, Solomon [Ajayi] and Elijah and the Jesse have kind of taken the leadership role. We had to have the buy in from those seniors in order to get to this point.”
What can you take from your previous bowl experiences that will help you prepare your team for this Saturday?
“I keep records on pretty much everything. What worked, what didn’t work? I have been fortunate to win three of the four bowl games that I’ve coached in. The one that we did not win. I did not allow our kids to enjoy the week. It was our first New Year Six game. I’m at that point in my career where I’m just life driven and man, we’ve got to win this New Year’s Six game and what it would lead to and how it would benefit me as a coach. All those crazy things that the ambition and drive can make you do if it is not in check. It didn’t work out real well at all. We played awful. The following year, we go to another New York Six game and kind of went back to what I did in the first bowl game we went to. We are going to celebrate. We are going to have joy and we are going to remember it. I think there is a great balance. I would say to the Cure Bowl Committee this is the best I have ever been a part of here. As far as them understanding really what a college athlete wants out of this week, they have been so generous with the time that they have given these kids. It is different at a lot of places. Reality is in this society today. Our kids really have no desire to go sit at a three hour dinner. The Cure Bowl gets that. It is been organized, efficient and balanced to where we hear the mission of what the Cure Bowl is, but go enjoy yourself. I just give credit to all the administration that runs the Cure Bowl. I think it is kind of the best setup that allows the coaches like me to have a great balance. We have had a lot of fun. We are going to have fun today. Then tonight at 9:45 p.m., we enter position meetings and everything has to flip and be on the game, but we have had a good balance.
Georgia Southern Players – Quarterback Shai Werts, Placekicker Tyler Bass, Linebacker Rashad Byrd and Cornerback Kindle Vildor
What does it mean to be playing in a game with a cause like the Cure Bowl:
Byrd: “Awesome opportunity for what this bowl really stands for. For me personally, I know it means a lot, but it’s really a lot of fun. You have Universal here and a lot of other activities that you can do as well. It was just a great opportunity for us to showcase our abilities, but also raise awareness for a lot of other things.
Bass: “This is a great opportunity to raise awareness for cancer. At the end of the day, this bowl game is just a testament to how well we play this season and we’re just looking to enjoy it, but also have a good balance between play and also working.”
What is it going to be like going up against a wide receiver like Antonio Gandy-Golden, who has been invited to the Senior Bowl?
Vildor: “We actually haven’t spoke yet personally like face to face. But we will probably talk when we go to the amusement park and stuff like that. It is going be a great opportunity for the both of us to go out and compete. Good on good out there and just show everybody what we can do out there.”
How is it like preparing to go up against a high-power passing attack that Liberty possesses?
Vildor: “We are just going to go out there and just play how we know we can play and play our fundamental football each and every snap out there. We nobody got a good head coach, who has a good background of coaching. He may present some different scheme that we may I’m not seeing, but we’ll be ready for them.”
What was it like hitting the kick to win the bowl game last year and how much confidence has that provided?
Bass: “It’s been crazy. A lot of people know who I am now, but at the end of the day, I know that kick wasn’t just me. It took the team, a great long snapper, holder and O-line. Thanks to Shai [Werts] for getting me in position. It definitely gives me confidence knowing that I got such good teammates behind me and a coaching staff that trusts me. They made my job easy.”
How do you attack the Liberty defense?
Werts: “It’s not just me. There’s multiple options that we have in the backfield. There are so many options. So you can’t really just go to sleep on me, and when you do, I have to make you pay for it. So it just preparing and taking what the defense gives me. That is what it comes down to.”
Rashad, with everything that your family has gone through with breast cancer, what has this week been like for you? And what have your conversations been with your mom throughout this week?
Byrd: “It’s been great. Me and my mom have not talked much. She usually leaves me alone during game week, which was pretty cool and we usually go afterwards. She always texted me every day, just a bible verse during the day, which is pretty great. Other than that, this is a great cause. It is awesome to be honest, because I not a lot of teams to get to go to bowl games. Just being here with teammates, because it’s been a rough year. We have faced a lot of adversity. Just to be here with such a great cause and having everybody here is one is really a great feeling.”
What is it going to be like playing on a fast track at Exploria Stadium?
Byrd: I actually was here during the summer and watched Orlando play for my first professional game and it is pretty cool to come back and play here as well. It is a different atmosphere, but that doesn’t really change what we do. We just got to believe in what we do.
How do you feel when giving back to the community?
Byrd: “It feels great. I love seeing smiles on other people’s faces when you giving back. Everybody is all good whenever they see you doing well, but once you actually go and meet those people and actually be in their lives and makes a big difference to them, then it will ever make an impact on you.“
Georgia Southern Head Coach Chad Lunsford
“First off, I just want to say thank you to Alan Gooch, executive director of the Cure Bowl and FBC Mortgage Company and the Orlando Sports Foundation. Also want to thank George Southern University and our administration. I want to thank our players, our coaches, everybody this involved that has gotten us here. This is a great bowl game to come to. We started off the season 1-3. We had two feet in a grave. Our guys have been very resilient and worked very hard to get into this bowl game. It’s been a first class trip. Our guys have been treated very well and it’s been very exciting. On top of that, what a cause…breast cancer awareness, being able to play football and bring awareness to that type of cause is something that is very invaluable, so we are very blessed for that.
“Next thing, what a great opponent in Liberty. As I watch them and talking to Coach Freese last night and hearing some of the stories about their team and what they’ve done to get in their first ever bowl game and watching their offense, defense and special teams. This is exciting for us. This is a great challenge for us. We are looking forward to a great 60-plus minute dogfight come Saturday. That’s something that our guys know a lot about.
“One thing I would like to say is to talk a little bit about Georgia Southern football. College football is a business, but at Georgia Southern, it is a family business and that is something that we don’t take lightly. We believe in our identity. We are blue collar. We are disciplined. We are tough. I tell our guys all the time that does not take talent to be that. Our guys have exemplified that all year. We always talk about being the Georgia Southern man. We have our own core values. We have the things that we live by and we do not go away from that. That is what has made this season very special for us in that we have had a lot of adversity. A lot of adversity that is not normal. All football seasons and all football teams face adversity every year, but we have had an abnormal amount of it. Just to see our guys be so resilient all year and continue to work and get after it and get themselves in position to go finish off the season with a bowl championship…I can’t say enough about them or our coaches and our whole staff for doing that.
“At Georgia Southern, this is an epic story. Georgia Southern football when you start looking at the history of how it was founded, how it was started from Coach Russell coming from the University of Georgia as a defensive coordinator, coming down and starting a program from nothing. He didn’t even have a football for the press conference, didn’t have uniforms, didn’t have ways to travel, didn’t have anything. That’s what we are. That’s what our program is…not saying that we deserve anything. We always go in and earn everything that we get. It’s an epic story. Six national championships at the FCS level make the jump up the FBS and have the opportunity now to go get a third bowl victory. That’s something that we talk about all the time with our team is leaving a legacy. Georgia Southern football when you start looking at that story. Our seniors want to add to that legacy. Their team, when they first came in and we were 7-17 in their first two years. Going into this game, they got an opportunity to be 18-8 and that is a great turnaround for them. They got an opportunity to be the first team to be back-to-back bowl champions. They had the opportunity to finish off something that they came to Georgia Southern to do. Very proud of them, because they’re taking care of business off the field and on the field and looking forward to a great contest on Saturday.
Why should Eagle Nation come on down and support the team this weekend?
“You know, Eagle Nation. Obviously, we feed off that energy. We always talk about the power of Paulson and hearing that you have bought 4,500 tickets. I am looking forward to the power of Paulson coming to Orlando. If you are on the fence about it, get off the fence. Come on down to Orlando and lets watch a great game. We would love to feel that energy.”
How are you going to be able to keep the Liberty passing offense in check?
“Well, sometimes what happens is you may not play your technique right or you may not be tied in, in the back end, and on the same page and you might make some mistakes. We have given up some plays because of it. We just we continue to work. We talk about we have to make sure we communicate on the back end. We put a heavy emphasis on making sure our fundamentals were right. When your last game is on the 30th and then you turn around, you are playing on the 21st. You have to make sure that you are staying with your technique, working your fundamentals and making sure that you are in a position to make plays. We put a lot of stress on that and our guys are up to the challenge. We have three really good corners that are all three seniors. I trust those guys and I know they will go out there and give it give it their best and give us a chance to win.
What does it mean to the identity of this program to run the triple option?
“I said this last year at our bowl game. We are not sexy. We are just blue collar. That is what we are on offense. We are going to establish the run and we believe in winning a football game with our plan to win. Part of that is dominating the run game. That’s a team goal for us. We want to establish a run on offense and we want to stop the run on defense. Then, when we throw the ball, we want to be efficient and we want to be explosive. I trust our receivers. I trust our running backs. I trust our O-line. I trust our quarterback to go out there and make the plays when they are called in. If you look at us this season, yes, we run the ball a lot. That’s what we do and we’re going to. That’s what we’re going to try to establish, but when it’s time to make a pass play. You have seen our guys do that this year, so I don’t expect anything less from them. I expect them to go and be our identity on Saturday. Blue collar discipline and tough coached.”