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ULM football is a hard job, but it’s easy to like what the new coach is doing so far

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You can finish near .500 at ULM, and you can pull upsets, but with a 20-year sample, we still have no idea how you win consistently.

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Zaunbrecher was a Louisiana native and former LSU offensive coordinator. He went 20-36. Bobby Keasler was McNeese State's ultra-successful head coach, engineer of five top-10 finishes and a run to the I-AA finals. He went 8-28.

Charlie Weatherbie was a remodeling expert, having brought brief success to moribund Utah State and Navy programs. He went 31-51. Todd Berry had experience in hard jobs (he won five games in four years at Army) and proved willing to get weird to bring wins to northern Louisiana. He went 28-43.

ULM has been FBS since 1994. The Warhawks have one bowl and 10 five-plus-win seasons to show for it. For all their resourcefulness, Weatherbie and Berry combined to finish with a winning record once. They boasted wins over Alabama and Arkansas, three losses to FCS teams, and 30 losses to teams with losing records.

Meanwhile, the person with seemingly the most direct, local, useful experience (Keasler) bombed, going 3-22 over his final three seasons.

ULM is a Hard Job. You're dealing with less money than most FBS teams, you're taking on ruthless non-conference slates to bring in revenue, and you're far enough north that you don't even get to take full advantage of playing in a talent-rich state.

Matt Viator was a steady winner at — you guessed it — McNeese State. He coached there 10 years, reached the FCS playoffs five times, and won at least 10 games three times. He knows the landscape, he knows how hard it is to win at ULM, and he took the job anyway. All good things. Noble, even.

And in his first year, Viator was fine. ULM went 4-1 against teams ranked 93rd or worse in S&P+ and 0-7 against teams that ranked higher. The Warhawks had nothing to offer against better teams but took advantage of the chances they got and managed to double their 2015 win total despite the worst run defense in FBS and a lineup loaded with freshmen and sophomores.

Now comes the hard part: actually improving. Experience should help, as should an impressive recruiting class. Per the 247Sports Composite, Viator signed the No. 3 class in the Sun Belt, one that graded out better than those of conference heavyweights Appalachian State and Arkansas State and might have been the school’s best class ever.

ULM had an interesting offensive identity last year and went to great lengths to recruit its way to a better secondary. If the run defense is merely bad and not world's-worst, a schedule that features six conference games against teams projected 108th or worse and a non-conference visit from Southern Miss could produce wins.

The confounding part of this job isn't producing a decent season — it's producing a lot of them. But you can't do that until you've done it once.


2016 in review

You learn most of what you need to know about ULM by simply looking at the level of competition.

  • ULM vs. No. 86-plus (4-3): Avg. percentile performance 31% | Yards per play: ULM 5.5, Opp 5.4 (+0.1) | Performance vs. S&P+ projection: +7.8 PPG
  • ULM vs. S&P+ top 85 (0-5): Avg. percentile performance 6% | Yards per play: Opp 8.2, ULM 4.5 (-3.7) | Performance vs. S&P+ projection: -16.8 PPG

If the Warhawks could keep up athletically, they could keep up on the scoreboard. But if they were outmatched, there was no amount of craftiness, misdirection, or inspiration that was going to keep them in the game.

They not only lost by a combined 117-24 to Oklahoma and Auburn but also by a combined 152-44 to New Mexico, Arkansas State, and Appalachian State. That all five happened on the road was an added liability, but ULM was overmatched in a major way.

At home against lesser competition, the Warhawks took care of business. They handled Southern and Texas State, eked out a close home win over South Alabama (which beat Mississippi State and San Diego State), and handled Georgia State on the road.

A season-ending dud against UL-Lafayette threw this trend off, but ULM was a "playing your best against the worst opponents" team in 2016. And honestly, if you've got a limited number of shots, you might as well use them in the games you can win.


Offense

Full advanced stats glossary.

Viator basically put together an all-star team of FCS coaches when he came to ULM, bringing in Sam Houston State defensive coordinator Mike Collins and SFA offensive coordinator Matt Kubik. Things didn't really click for Collins, but we got a few glimpses from Kubik.

The Warhawks scored at least 31 points in five contests and finished the season with a decent No. 76 ranking in Rushing S&P+. They were 24th in power success rate and 17th in stuff rate — they didn't always have the explosiveness necessary, but they were able to avoid moving backwards and moved the chains when they got the chance.

The occasional rushing success was made more impressive by the complete lack of continuity and experience on the two-deep.

  • Sophomore quarterback Garrett Smith was lost to injury midseason, and freshman Will Collins struggled before giving way to fellow freshman Caleb Evans.
  • Four different running backs carried at least 15 times in one game, and three carried at least 24 times in one. All were freshmen or sophomores.
  • Four different receivers were targeted more than 40 times, and none were targeted more than 60.
  • Only one offensive lineman started all 12 games, and freshmen accounted for 19 of 60 starts up front.

There was no semblance of a go-to on offense, but a lot of guys compiled experience. That alone doesn’t create stability, but it helps. And the Warhawks got a nice boost of talent with the addition of former Alabama walk-ons Derrick Gore (running back) and Eastwood Thomas (lineman), Texas Tech transfer Trace Ellison (lineman), and JUCOs Sloan Spiller (tight end) and Joquarius Savage (lineman).

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida
Derrick Gore
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Throw in some potentially high-caliber freshmen like running back Javin Myers, receiver Zachari Jackson, and lineman T.J. Fiailoa, and the two-deep should be quite a bit more athletic.

Gore’s a particularly interesting addition. He was ambitious enough to attempt to crack the depth chart on the deepest team in the country, and when he got the chance, he took advantage. He rushed six times for 45 yards against Kent State, three for 20 against Chattanooga, and four for 21 against Florida last year.

Granted, the line he was running behind there was just a little bit better than his new line, but he's got potential. And the ULM running back corps might be deep enough to double down on last year's run-first tendencies.

None of this will make much of a difference against the typical slate of big-name non-conference opponents -- Florida State, Auburn, plus athletic (and flawed) Southern Miss and Memphis teams. But the Warhawks will have a chance to establish a run-and-play-action game in Sun Belt play. Any semblance of continuity would make ULM one of the league's better offenses.

The Warhawks will need all the offensive firepower they can get; the defense will still leave something to be desired.


Defense

The ULM offense was interesting if justifiably inconsistent and limited. The defense, however, didn’t have a lot to offer. The Warhawks were decent against bad offenses and prevented big pass plays when not completely overmatched athletically. But when you’ve got the country’s worst run defense, there’s only so much you can hope to accomplish.

Any big-play prevention ability was dampened by the woeful inefficiency that the run defense created.

You couldn't really blame injury for the problems. The top five defensive linemen missed only one combined game, the top three linebackers missed none, and the top eight DBs missed three.

There were still tons of freshmen and sophomores, though. And a couple could lead the defense in both 2017 and 2018: Linebackers David Griffith (now a junior) and Chase Day (sophomore) combined for 22 tackles for loss and five sacks.

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Auburn
Chase Day
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The defense was chasing its tail in 2016. The Warhawks couldn't stop the run to save its life early in the year; Oklahoma and Auburn understandably averaged 6.2 yards per carry, but Southern and Idaho averaged 5.6. Whatever adjustments they made to counter that — and there was indeed some improvement over the second half of the season — had a direct impact on the pass defense.

  • ULM pass defense (first 6 games): 59% completion rate, 12.1 yards per completion, 133.1 passer rating
  • ULM pass defense (last 6 games): 61% completion rate, 15.7 yards per completion, 164.5 passer rating

The Warhawks got gashed deep when they crept closer to the line to stop the run. And based on whom he signed, Viator found the problems from the second half of the season more troublesome than those from the first half. He brought in three JUCO defensive backs (including three-star cornerback J.J. Dallas) and three three-star freshmen. Cornerback Corey Straughter in particular was one of the most impressive signees in the Sun Belt.

These six, plus three-star redshirt freshman Logan Latin, could make ULM's secondary one of the conference's deepest, especially considering seven of last year's top 11 DBs are back.

So what about the line, the biggest concern for half the year? Any improvement up front will come from returnees. A pair of freshmen (redshirt freshman end Ty Shelby, true freshman tackle Demonde Harris) could make an impact, but that's about it.

Six of last year's top seven linemen return, but barring some offseason body transformation (always a possibility), ULM appears lacking in girth. The top four returning defensive ends average 6'2, 230, and the top six returning tackles average 6'2, 279. A breakthrough from a bigger option like 290-pound Derion Ford or 300-pound Howard Houston, Jr., would be welcome.


Special Teams

Special teams was a wash or a net gain for ULM. Kicker Craig Ford was accurate inside of 40 yards but didn't have the most powerful leg in the world; that was offset by a solid season from punter Dayton Balvanz and an efficient return game.

Balvanz is gone, but everybody is back, including punt returner Marcus Green and kick returner Markus McCray. ULM was 74th in Special Teams S&P+ last year and I would expect about the same in 2017, especially if Ford can add a yard or two to his kickoffs.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Memphis 61 -21.8 10%
9-Sep at Florida State 3 -44.6 1%
16-Sep Southern Miss 84 -7.2 34%
18-Nov at Auburn 9 -38.8 1%
TBA Appalachian State 62 -15.5 19%
TBA Arkansas State 83 -7.4 33%
TBA Coastal Carolina 114 -0.3 49%
TBA Georgia State 113 -0.4 49%
TBA at Idaho 119 -4.9 39%
TBA at South Alabama 108 -7.5 33%
TBA at Texas State 129 3.5 58%
TBA at UL-Lafayette 112 -6.8 35%
Projected S&P+ Rk 121
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 99 / 127
Projected wins 3.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -17.9 (126)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 108 / 119
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -11 / -4.0
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 73% (79%, 67%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.9 (0.1)

The Sun Belt's an interesting place at the moment. The pecking order appears semi-clear; Appalachian State and Arkansas State have gone a combined 29-3 in conference play over the last two years. But Texas State (128th in S&P+ in 2016) and ULM (126th) signed two of the three best classes. That's not exactly something you would see in the SEC.

Whatever impact that may have, though, is a year or two away. Texas State is still probably a ways away from putting the pieces together, and while ULM's strengths could be pretty strong in Viator's second year, the weaknesses — namely, run defense — will likely still be very weak.

For the most part, Viator’s Warhawks were able to keep up with teams at the lower level of FBS, and the combination of recruiting and experience should raise their ceiling a little bit.

S&P+ projects the Warhawk offense to cross into the top 100, and if the defense can shift from awful to merely bad, their home-road splits in Sun Belt play could be conducive to wins. Or maybe a ton of tight losses.

ULM is projected to have between a 33 and 49 percent chance of winning in six of eight conference games, with one higher (58 percent chance at Texas State) and one lower (19 percent at home against Appalachian State). A little bit of overachievemet could mean two or three extra wins.

Meanwhile, the impact of ULM's senior class will still probably be minimal. Whatever the Warhawks are in 2017, they should expect to take another step forward in 2018. And in theory, that's when improving recruiting could take effect.


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