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1. Hey, coach
From September 2012 to August 2013, I spent a lot of time talking about UL-Monroe. From the amazing intro video to the underdog masterpiece to the two-quarterback formation to the first bowl bid in school history, Todd Berry's Warhawks did plenty to generate attention for themselves, considering their status as the most low-budget, no-history team in FBS.
"We don’t play up the underdog thing very much. We have a sign that players see every day; it says ‘I didn’t come here to play, I came here to win.’ A lot of players in programs like this, they think that going into a game as the underdog means it’s a win if we play it close. You don’t play to your potential like that.
It’s hard to break out of the norm as a coach – if you’re outside of the norm, you get fired if it doesn’t work. I wasn’t as risky at Army as I was here. [...] Here’s the one thing I learned from Army: Go win the games. Don’t worry about what the general’s going to say. I’m not worried about my job anymore – I’m just trying to win the game."
That's what Berry told me last year in an interview for my book, Study Hall. In four years in Monroe, Berry has tried to install a favorite's mindset while using whatever underdog tactics he can find to even the playing field. Because of academic standards, money, history, facilities, etc., recruiting is pretty difficult.
But in his third year, he engineered one of the most fun, memorable 8-5 seasons on record. ULM returned quite a few key pieces in 2013, and I was convinced the Warhawks were ready to compete for a conference title.
But injuries led to a drastic downturn in the passing game, the run game couldn't pick up enough slack, and the offense cratered. ULM needed a late upset win to get back to .500, and after an Independence Bowl bid in 2012, no bid awaited in 2013.
2. Clear one hurdle, approach another
One of my go-to sayings is "Improvement isn't linear." Just because you improved one year doesn't mean you're guaranteed to do it again, even if you've got experience on your side. You're just a couple of bad breaks away from losing your momentum, and even a positive long-term trend is not without setbacks.
ULM lost quite a bit of its momentum last fall, and while a .500 record is nothing to scoff at in Monroe -- the Warhawks have been .500 or better in just four of 20 seasons since their move to FBS in 1994 -- it wasn't quite what the program had in mind.
The 2014 Warhawks are wonderfully experienced once again, which could point to another step forward. But the progress of a new offensive backfield, not to mention another daunting non-conference schedule, could limit growth to about seven wins or so.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 6-6 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 109|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||at Oklahoma||20||0-34||L||3.0 - 26.3||L|
|7-Sep||Grambling State||N/A||48-10||W||31.4 - 24.7||W|
|14-Sep||at Wake Forest||81||21-19||W||23.1 - 33.5||L|
|21-Sep||at Baylor||7||7-70||L||15.4 - 35.5||L|
|28-Sep||Tulane||70||14-31||L||20.2 - 30.3||L||-11.5|
|3-Oct||Western Kentucky||77||10-31||L||24.0 - 32.2||L||-8.4|
|12-Oct||at Texas State||107||21-14||W||8.2 - 25.5||L||-13.2|
|26-Oct||Georgia State||121||38-10||W||30.6 - 18.7||W||-8.7|
|31-Oct||at Troy||105||49-37||W||27.8 - 28.1||L||-4.8|
|9-Nov||Arkansas State||90||14-42||L||19.3 - 29.5||L||-4.8|
|23-Nov||at South Alabama||68||14-36||L||16.6 - 29.3||L||-5.7|
|30-Nov||at UL-Lafayette||86||31-28||W||30.2 - 28.2||W||-1.9|
|Points Per Game||22.3||101||30.2||84|
|Adj. Points Per Game||20.8||114||28.5||71|
3. Too little, too late
First, the offense was disappointing. Then, in the absence of quarterback Kolton Browning, it was devastated.
In the Warhawks' first four games against FBS competition, they averaged just 295 yards and 11 points per game. A year after upsetting Arkansas and nearly doing the same to Baylor, they were beaten by Oklahoma and Baylor by a combined 104-7 margin. They did go to Wake Forest and knock off the Demon Deacons, but the results just weren't there overall. And against Tulane, Browning suffered a torn quadricep. At first, it was assumed that he was lost for the season, but he was back after missing just two games.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Opponent 30.1, ULM 18.6 (minus-11.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (two games without Browning): Opponent 28.9, ULM 16.1 (minus-12.8)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 5 games): Opponent 26.8, ULM 24.9 (minus-1.9)
ULM was able to beat Texas State without Browning despite almost no offense whatsoever (192 total yards), but while the results were still a bit scattershot when he returned, the Warhawks showed at least a little bit more promise. But things never really came together as expected despite a defense that improved a bit as the year progressed. ULM couldn't find a possession weapon to replace departed Brent Leonard, and without Browning carrying as much of the load, the running game struggled.
Basically all of the important pieces besides Browning return in 2014. We'll see if that's for better or for worse.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||37.0%||112||Succ. Rt. +||85.9||110|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||31.3||94||Def. FP+||99.4||66|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.9||97||Redzone S&P+||93.4||87|
|Q1 Rk||95||1st Down Rk||122|
|Q2 Rk||103||2nd Down Rk||108|
|Q3 Rk||84||3rd Down Rk||59|
4. The big plays were big enough
Offense can basically be broken down into two pieces: How frequently are you generating solid gains, and how big are those solid gains?
For ULM in 2013, the latter wasn't a problem. Four different Warhawks had at least one carry of at least 50 yards, and five caught a pass of at least 40. When players got into the open field, they took full advantage. The problem was that their opportunities were minimal. Browning completed just 57 percent of his passes (down from 64 percent in 2012), and backup Brayle Brown completed just 52 percent; plus, the ULM running game ranked just 113th in Success Rate+.
In 2014, three of the four explosive running backs (Centarius Donald, DeVontae McNeal, and Nathan Meadors, Jr.) return, as do four of the five with long catches (Rashon Ceaser, Kenzee Jackson, Ajalen Holley, and Cortney Davis). The magnitude of the big plays probably won't be an issue. What remains to be seen is whether the frequency will improve.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Brayle Brown||6'2, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||61||117||645||1||6||52.1%||3||2.5%||5.2|
|Brian Williams||6'3, 215||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Anthony Monken||6'4, 200||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
5. The answer: Trey Revell
The question: Who was ULM's last leading passer not named Kolton Browning?
In 2009, Revell threw for 1,739 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions for Charlie Weatherbie's final Warhawk squad. Berry took over the next year, put Browning into the lineup, and only looked elsewhere when Browning was banged up. In four years, Browning threw for 10,264 yards and 81 touchdowns and rushed for 1,545 yards and 18 scores. He was the centerpiece for whatever funkiness Berry and offensive coordinator Steve Farmer dreamed up, and in his absence, Brayle Brown didn't exactly light the world afire last season.
If Brown doesn't seize control of the starting job in the spring, the race could become a free-for-all in the fall. Redshirt freshman Brian Williams is the only other scholarship quarterback returning, and the duo will be joined by a trio of freshmen: Isaac Jackson, Garrett Smith, and the most highly touted of the three, Anthony Monken.
|Centarius Donald||RB||6'1, 221||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||87||433||4||5.0||6.4||29.9%|
|DeVontae McNeal||RB||5'10, 209||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||29||205||2||7.1||15.2||31.0%|
|Brayle Brown||QB||6'2, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||20||77||0||3.9||2.8||40.0%|
|Nathan Meadors, Jr.||RB||5'7, 170||So.||NR||13||76||0||5.8||9.5||38.5%|
|Cortney Davis||WR||5'9, 181||Jr.||NR||7||4||0||0.6||N/A||0.0%|
|Rashon Ceaser||WR||6'0, 183||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||96||65||964||67.7%||21.8%||55.8%||10.0||196||10.8||106.6|
|Tony Cook||WR||6'4, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||50||15||181||30.0%||11.3%||38.7%||3.6||-106||2.9||20.0|
|Kenzee Jackson||WR||5'10, 185||Sr.||NR||42||25||271||59.5%||9.5%||38.2%||6.5||-44||5.6||30.0|
|Ajalen Holley||WR||5'10, 193||So.||2 stars (5.3)||35||21||266||60.0%||7.9%||66.7%||7.6||2||7.7||29.4|
|Harley Scioneaux||TE||6'5, 247||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||29||18||125||62.1%||6.6%||66.7%||4.3||-97||3.8||13.8|
|Centarius Donald||RB||6'1, 221||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||18||14||52||77.8%||4.1%||68.8%||2.9||-103||2.4||5.8|
|Cortney Davis||WR||5'9, 181||Jr.||NR||14||8||150||57.1%||3.2%||36.4%||10.7||47||7.3||16.6|
|Tre' Perrier||WR||5'8, 174||So.||NR||10||5||79||50.0%||2.3%||75.0%||7.9||10||11.1||8.7|
|DeVontae McNeal||RB||5'10, 209||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||7||5||19||71.4%||1.6%||42.9%||2.7||-39||2.3||2.1|
|Alec Osborne||TE||6'3, 228||So.||2 stars (5.4)||4||1||4||25.0%||0.9%||N/A||1.0||-18||0.0||0.4|
|D'marius Gillespie||WR||6'1, 180||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
6. Don't wait until second-and-long
Young starters aren't known for efficiency, but the task for whoever wins the job will be figuring out how not to immediately fall behind schedule. ULM was downright solid on passing downs, ranking 73rd in Passing Downs S&P+; the problem was that the Warhawks just faced too many passing downs to succeed. They ranked 122nd in First Down S&P+, egregiously low, and were doomed to second-and-long on seemingly every set of downs. All of the big-play threats listed above served as bailout options at times, but the running game simply wasn't reliable enough, and the receiving corps didn't have any reliable complements to Rashon Ceaser.
Just about everybody in the skill position units return. Jyruss Edwards is gone, but while he was long a mainstay in the two-deep, his production was replaceable. No. 2 receiver Tavarese Maye is gone, but a lot of No. 2s can average 5.9 yards per target.
Lots of explosive options are back, but it's up to a new quarterback to find them consistently, and it's up to an experienced line with three multi-year starters to improve on last year's iffy blocking showcase. Second-and-long is deadly with a new quarterback. Can the Warhawks avoid it?
|Josh Allen||C||42||1st All-SBC|
|Joseph Treadwell||LT||6'5, 316||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||37|
|Demiere Burkett||RT||6'2, 315||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||25|
|Ben Risenhoover||RG||6'2, 293||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||17|
|Jeremy Burton||LT||6'2, 310||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Jimmy Chung||LG||6'1, 290||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Colby Mitchell||C||6'1, 283||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Trey Martin||RG||6'2, 285||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Brandon Bridgers||RT||6'4, 290||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Chase Regian||OL||6'2, 285||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Matthew Oubre||OL||6'1, 290||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||43.5%||81||Succ. Rt. +||91.5||97|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||25.6||122||Off. FP+||92.6||118|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.4||84||Redzone S&P+||85.9||97|
|Q1 Rk||78||1st Down Rk||53|
|Q2 Rk||86||2nd Down Rk||107|
|Q3 Rk||108||3rd Down Rk||93|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Gerrand Johnson||NT||6'0, 283||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||11||40.0||6.2%||11.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Joey Gautney||DE||6'1, 255||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||12||25.0||3.9%||6.5||3.0||0||2||2||0|
|Darius Lively||DE||6'3, 254||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||18.5||2.9%||5.0||1.5||0||2||0||0|
|Malcolm Edmond||NT||6'1, 275||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||11||15.5||2.4%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Lorenzo Jackson||DE||6'2, 214||Jr.||NR||7||7.5||1.2%||2.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Diontre Thomas||DE||6'1, 222||So.||2 stars (5.3)||1||2.0||0.3%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Everett Anderson||DE||6'2, 265||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|David Elias, Jr.||DE||6'2, 265||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Shaquille Warren||DE||6'3, 230||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
7. No excuses for the defense
One of ULM's biggest accomplishments in 2012 was winning eight games despite a defense so young it would still be young the next season. Nine starters returned for the Warhawks last year, and if nothing else, the unit held steady. After a shaky start that featured a 70-7 pasting by Baylor (and the Bears really could have scored 90 if they wanted to) and an Adjusted Scoring average of 30.4 points per game in the first half the year, the defense did improve. And now it returns another nine starters in 2014.
Defense was a strength of Barry's first couple of ULM teams; the Warhawks ranked 59th in Def. F/+ in 2010 and 74th in 2011. They fell to 86th and 90th the last two years, but aside from a major bout with injuries -- always a possibility in this sport -- there really is no excuse for this team not to approach 2010-11 numbers again this fall. The top five tacklers return on the line, as do four of five at linebacker and nine of 11 in the secondary. Experience will be a strength here.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Hunter Kissinger||LB||6'2, 229||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||11||55.0||8.5%||6.5||1.0||3||1||1||0|
|Ray Stovall||LB||6'2, 232||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||40.0||6.2%||11.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cody Robinson||LB||6'0, 216||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||10||26.5||4.1%||5.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Michael Johnson||LB||6'1, 221||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||10||21.0||3.3%||2.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tevyn Cagins||LB||6'1, 216||So.||2 stars (5.4)||3||6.0||0.9%||1.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Braxton Moore||LB||5'11, 213||So.||NR||3||4.0||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jarred Dunn||LB||6'0, 200||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Cody McGuire||LB||6'3, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)|
8. Passive aggression
ULM's run defense was all-or-nothing in 2013. The Warhawks were a healthy 31st in Stuff Rate (negative running plays) and featured five players with at least 3.5 non-sack tackles for loss. But they still ranked just 108th in Rushing Success Rate+ and got pushed around quite a bit. And while the run-game aggression paid off at times, the Warhawks had no semblance of a pass rush, especially on passing downs. The goal on passing downs was to form a cloud and swarm, but they weren't successful at it. Not only did they give opponents plenty of room to find options underneath the coverage, but opponents were able to puncture the cloud pretty easily. ULM ranked 87th on standard downs but only 111th on passing downs. Not a good look.
As with the offense, most of the aggressive pieces return. Tackle Gerrand Johnson has been a fun play-maker for a couple of years now, and linebackers Ray Stovall, Hunter Kissinger, and Cody Robinson have all made their share of plays near the line of scrimmage. Safety Mitch Lane has had his ball-hawking moments as well. But this only matters if ULM is able to both create and take advantage of more passing downs.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Cordero Smith||S||5'11, 193||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||10||46.5||7.2%||2||0||1||3||1||0|
|Mitch Lane||S||6'0, 212||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||12||38.0||5.9%||0.5||0||2||4||0||0|
|Justin Backus||CB||6'2, 183||So.||2 stars (5.3)||12||35.5||5.5%||0||0||2||1||0||0|
|Trey Caldwell||CB||5'9, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||32.5||5.0%||0||0||0||3||0||0|
|Rob'Donovan Lewis||CB||5'10, 178||Sr.||NR||9||23.5||3.6%||1||0||0||3||1||0|
|Lenzy Pipkins||S||6'0, 195||So.||3 stars (5.5)||9||18.0||2.8%||3||0||1||3||0||0|
|Tre' Hunter||S||6'0, 183||So.||2 stars (5.4)||6||8.5||1.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Roland Veal||S||6'1, 201||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||5||7.0||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Bryce Ray||S||6'1, 186||Sr.||NR||4||6.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Grant Dotsy||CB||5'9, 185||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Marquis McCullum||S||5'11, 185||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Junior Williams||DB||5'10, 184||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Justin Manton||6'2, 194||Sr.||80||45.8||11||16||24||50.0%|
|Justin Manton||6'2, 194||Sr.||53||61.4||30||0||56.6%|
|Justin Manton||6'2, 194||Sr.||34-35||5-8||62.5%||0-1||0.0%|
|Cortney Davis||KR||5'9, 181||Jr.||25||21.1||1|
|DeVontae McNeal||KR||5'10, 209||Jr.||5||10.2||0|
|Rashon Ceaser||PR||6'0, 183||Jr.||12||10.5||1|
|Kenzee Jackson||PR||5'10, 185||Sr.||2||1.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||121|
|Field Goal Efficiency||121|
|Punt Return Efficiency||120|
|Kick Return Efficiency||123|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||123|
9. Do-It-All Manton
Justin Manton was most of what was good, and a little of what was bad, about ULM's special teams unit in 2013. He bombed punts down the field but occasionally outkicked his coverage. Over half of his kickoffs were touchbacks, but he couldn't always aim his cannon and missed three of eight field goals inside of 40 yards.
In the end, he brought enough good to the table to make him a decent weapon, but his coverage units were sketchy, and in the other aspect of special teams, ULM was unable to find reliable return threats. (Hey, how fast is Manton?) They returned two kicks for touchdowns, but most other returns got nowhere. Everybody of note returns from this unit. As with the offense, we'll see if that's a good thing.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|1-Nov||at Texas A&M||7|
|TBD||at Appalachian State||NR|
|TBD||at Arkansas State||84|
|TBD||at Georgia Southern||NR|
|TBD||at New Mexico State||124|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-14.7% (102)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||114|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-4 / 1.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (6, 9)|
10. Expectations are still a pretty new thing in Monroe
Whether you are predisposed to assume that 2012 was a one-time thing or that 2014 will represent a nice bounce back after frustration in 2013, you have quite a bit of evidence to cite.
Optimists can pretty easily point to the heft of experience and play-making ability on the two-deep. ULM wants to play aggressive football and has both the experience and ability to do so.
Pessimists can pretty easily assert that aggression without safety valves is stupidity. Making plays is great, but ULM couldn't keep from falling behind schedule on offense and couldn't keep from giving up more big plays than it made on defense. And while experience is nice, these experienced players are the ones who had all the flaws last year.
Right now, I lean slightly toward the former camp. I'm an optimist by nature, so that makes sense, but this really is an experienced group. A new quarterback probably won't help the overall efficiency a ton, but for all his strengths, Browning did set the bar pretty low in that category. The new QB will have experience all around him, not to mention a defense that should be the team's best in at least a couple of years.
I don't think this is a Sun Belt title contender -- not with what Louisiana-Lafayette returns -- but I'm confident the Warhawks can get back to six or seven wins and a top-100 F/+ rating this year. That could be good enough for third in the conference, second with solid injuries luck.