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ULM’s got a dynamite offense and guaranteed shootouts. What more could you want in Sun Belt life?

Matt Viator’s third season in Monroe could include a bowl bid if the defense improves from horrible to simply bad.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 Louisiana Monroe at Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ve made it pretty clear through the years that I admire both of the Sun Belt’s Louisiana schools. In the seven seasons that I have been writing full-time for SB Nation, ULM and UL Lafayette have provided three of my favorite college football moments. In order:

1. The Ragin’ Cajuns’ 2011 New Orleans Bowl win

2. The Warhawks’ 2012 comeback win over Arkansas

The underdog masterpiece.

3. The two-QB formation

This series of moments defined both programs and showed that there is potential for excitement and innovation even in the lower-revenue pockets of FBS.

They also all happened more than five years ago. The Cajuns and Warhawks won a combined 17 games in 2012, a remarkable accomplishment. But that total fell to 15 in 2013, 13 in 2014, and six in 2015. Todd Berry, ULM’s turnaround master, was looking for a new job by 2016. Mark Hudspeth, engineer of four straight nine-win seasons at UL Lafayette from 2011-14, was dismissed a couple of months ago.

I say it often (in fact, I said it in this week’s UL Lafayette preview as well): hard jobs remain hard. You are consistently swimming upstream and fighting a current while much of FBS swims on a horizontal plane. That makes me admire those who will take on such a project.

ULM is, in particular, one of the most difficult jobs in FBS, and Matt Viator, winner of 78 games at McNeese State (also in Louisiana), took it on in 2016. In his first eight games, he went just 2-6 with wins over only Southern U. and Texas State, the worst team in FBS that year. ULM averaged 22.8 points per game and allowed 42.4.

Since then? Progress ... on one side of the ball. The Warhawks scored a combined 79 points in late 2016 wins over South Alabama and Georgia State, and they averaged 34 points per game in 2017, 42 in conference play.

They also only went 4-4 in conference play and 4-8 overall. You’ve got to stop somebody occasionally, too.

In 2018, ULM faces an exaggerated version of 2017. The Warhawks return almost everyone from an offense that surged to No. 17 in Off. S&P+. Quarterback Caleb Evans threw for nearly 3,000 yards and, sans sacks, rushed for nearly 700. Receivers Marcus Green and RJ Turner were both efficient (54 percent success rate) and explosive (16.3 yards per catch). The top five running backs and six linemen with starting experience also return. Offensive coordinator Matt Kubik’s offense could be the best in the conference this year.

Louisiana Monroe v Idaho
Matt Viator
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Will the defense be anything other than the worst? ULM managed to fall from No. 126 to No. 129 in Def. S&P+; that’s a long road to respectability.

Injuries played a role, sure. Losing potential starting end Shaquille Warren for the year and getting only four games from starting safety Nick Ingram didn’t help. Defensive coordinator Mike Collins played a line loaded with freshmen and sophomores and tried every possible combination of personnel in the back. Nothing worked. ULM was awful against both run (No. 127 in Rushing S&P+) and pass (No. 116 in Passing S&P+).

Eight starters return, though the three lost starters were among ULM’s top five havoc guys. Still, experience and good health should generate improvement. But is there enough pure talent? Is it all on the offensive side of the ball?

Though the record didn’t change, Viator engineered clear, obvious improvement in his second season in Monroe. With this offense, he can probably do it again in 2018. The “how high” and “how long” questions can wait, I guess.

Offense

2017 ULM offensive radar

Perhaps the most impressive thing about ULM’s offensive improvement is that it happened with almost no help from the run game. Alabama transfer Derrick Gore averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per carry; he has his best games against two of the better opponents on the schedule (36 carries for 199 yards against Southern Miss and Appalachian State) and averaged 3 yards per carry against everybody else.

Gore’s presence on the first string was a confusing one, as Ben Luckett, ULM’s leading rusher in 2016, averaged nearly 7 yards per carry in a backup role. His marginal efficiency was nearly 13 percentage points higher than Gore’s, and even at 227 pounds, he had some burst in the open field.

This year, Gore could get pushed by a pair of three-star redshirt freshmen, Jakyle Holmes and Javin Myers. They’ll also be running behind a pretty burly line. Six players have combined for 72 career starts up front and average a cool 6’4, 317 between them. (And that says nothing of backups like 330-pound Brandon Jones, 354-pound Joq Savage, or 321-pound Dakota Torbert.

The lack of cumulative production from the running backs, though, spells out just how impressive Caleb Evans was. A backup as a freshman in 2016, Evans overtook Garrett Smith (who has since transferred) in the starting lineup and never looked back. Not including sacks, he carried 10 times per game at 5.8 yards per carry, and he completed 61 percent of his passes with a marginal efficiency near of plus-8.5 percent (meaning, he was 8.5 percent more efficient than the national average based on down, distance, and field position).

Evans took minimal sacks, and he spread the ball around like crazy. Sure, he favored the trio of Marcus Green, Brian Williams, and RJ Turner, but nine different players were targeted at least once per game. And as iffy as Gore was between the tackles, he was great catching passes out of the backfield: 19 targets, 16 catches, 272 yards. Since Luckett wasn’t much of a receiving threat at all, that tells you pretty clearly why Gore was in the game.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 01 UL Monroe at Auburn
Marcus Green
Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Of those nine primary targets, only Williams is gone. The 5’8 Green, who caught 25 balls for 392 yards and two touchdowns during a season-ending four-game gauntlet against the defenses of Appalachian State, Auburn, Arkansas State, and Florida State, is all but assured of all-conference honors this year.

Turner had 16 catches of his own for 315 yards and four scores in that four-game stretch; he’s back as well. That’s a dynamite combination, and we haven’t yet talked about the potential efficiency supplement of not only Gore, but also players like senior wideouts D’Marius Gillespie and Markis McCray or tight ends Josh Pederson and Sloan Spiller.

This is a thrilling passing game, one that was easily able to overcome whatever second-and-8 or third-and-7 situations the run game set up for it. And in theory, experience and better depth could make those second-and-6s or third-and-4s. I expect a lot from this offense in 2018.

Defense

ULM defensive radar

On two occasions in 2017, ULM scored at least 37 points and lost by double-digits — 47-37 to Georgia State and 67-50 to Arkansas State. All they had to do was go unbeaten when scoring a boatload of points, and they’d have been bowl eligible. Instead, they put together a pretty nasty combination of inefficiency and an inability to prevent big plays:

2017 ULM defensive efficiency and explosiveness

Woof.

There weren’t enough injuries to justify such a poor performance, but injury did help to create a deep pool of experience heading into 2018. Add in four JUCO transfers (two linemen, two defensive backs), and a few interesting freshmen, and you’ve at least got yourself some options.

As a thought experiment if nothing else, here are the nicest things I can say about ULM’s returning defensive personnel:

  • Sophomore linemen Mason Husmann (nose tackle) and Kerry Starks (end) have a lot of potential. They were undersized last year at 270 and 220 pounds, respectively, and that does obvious things to your run defense, but they combined for 11 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for a defense desperate for havoc, and they each took part in at least eight run stuffs (stops at or behind the line). When Starks was involved in a play, it averaged 1.0 yards per play. And if nothing else, these guys will have spent the entire offseason going against ULM’s extremely meaty offensive line, so they’ll be used to fighting bigger guys.
  • David Griffith is a legitimate play-maker at weakside linebacker. He logged eight TFLs, took part in 14 run stuffs, and held opponents to minus-3.7 marginal efficiency as ULM’s second-leading tackler. Good things, all, and all of his LB battery mates return alongside him, including junior Cortez Sisco Jr. (4 TFLs).
  • There are lots of experienced options at safety. Ingram had 2.5 TFLs and four passes defensed in 2016, and seniors Wesley Thompson and Rhoy Williams were instrumental in making sure that ULM’s explosiveness numbers weren’t even worse. Plus, another senior, Collin Turner, recorded five passes defensed (third on the team) in just six games, and JUCO safeties Cal Kee III and Tyler Glass bring good size to the table.
  • Sophomore corners Kenderick Marbles and Corey Straughter survived. A lot was asked of them as freshmen, and Straughter managed five passes defensed while, yes, also failing a few tests.
  • Again, options, options, options. Nine of the 10 linemen are back (plus end Shaquille Warren), and each of the top five linebackers return. Plus, of the 17 defensive backs to record at least three tackles, 15 are scheduled to return. That’s depth that simply didn’t previously exist.
NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Florida State
Kenderick Marbles
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Was I persuasive? Did I talk you into massive improvement? Probably not. This is still an extremely undersized defense, and while experience and continuity will help — I’d be surprise if this defense didn’t improve into at least the 100s in Def. S&P+ — there are plenty of reasons to wonder about the pure talent level here.

Special Teams

Special teams was mostly helpful for ULM last year. Marcus Green is an unbelievable kick returner (32.4 yard average, four touchdowns) who creates a bit of a philosophical dilemma for opponents — can you kick it through the end zone? Should you kick toward the sideline and risk it going out of bounds? He helped to create a positive field position margin for ULM despite awful defensive inefficiency.

Beyond him, the unit is fine. Craig Ford made most of his shorter field goals (and went 2-for-3 on longer ones), and Green was at least decent in punt returns. The Warhawks need a new kickoffs guy, but Green alone makes this unit a net plus.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep SE Louisiana NR 15.0 81%
8-Sep at Southern Miss 94 -5.6 37%
15-Sep at Texas A&M 24 -22.6 10%
6-Oct at Ole Miss 25 -22.5 10%
TBD Georgia Southern 106 1.9 54%
TBD Texas State 123 8.0 68%
TBD Troy 78 -5.4 38%
TBD UL-Lafayette 121 6.7 65%
TBD at Arkansas State 66 -13.0 23%
TBD at Coastal Carolina 118 0.5 51%
TBD at Georgia State 113 -0.5 49%
TBD at South Alabama 109 -2.0 45%
Projected S&P+ Rk 107
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 28 / 128
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -12.5 (121)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 102 / 115
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -4.5
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 78% (83%, 73%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 3.9 (0.1)

Part of what makes the ULM job so hard is scheduling. For cash flow, the Warhawks almost always load up on payout games in non-conference play, and trips to Southern Miss, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss should ensure a 1-3 record in that portion of the schedule (though they could scare a green Southern Miss team in Week 2).

That means you probably have to go 5-3 in Sun Belt play to reach bowl eligibility. That might be tough, but the Hawks will have a chance. S&P+ projects them as healthy favorites in two games (Texas State and UL Lafayette) and forecasts tossups in four others. Win three of four tossups or pull an upset elsewhere, and there you go.

The margin for error is slim, but this offense should be able to hang with just about anybody. It deserves a bowl, and it deserves a defense that makes at least a stop or two more per game. Caleb Evans and Marcus Green are legitimate stars you should try to watch.

Viator is doing what he can, and the upside on one side of the ball is undeniable, even if he doesn’t break out any two-QB formations. He’s got an intriguing rebuild underway. Let’s see how far he can take it.

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