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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 107: Louisiana-Monroe

U.L.M. has an image problem. It’s not about L.S.U., because L.S.U. is L.S.U., and that’s fine. Louisiana-Monroe doesn’t compete with the Tigers, and wouldn’t dare try, of course. U.L.M. competes with Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech and Tulane for in-state eyeballs, and as the Warhawks head into the summer, they’re losing the battle for public attention. The Ragin’ Cajuns are riding a wave of good vibes after earning their first bowl berth on the F.B.S. level, beating U.L.M. to the punch. In addition to hitting its groove under Sonny Dykes, Louisiana Tech is now back in the news thanks to this week’s jump into Conference USA. Even Tulane, despite suffering a setback to its hopes for an on-campus stadium, has moved back into the regional conversation since hiring Curtis Johnson in December. In a state with five F.B.S. programs, U.L.M.’s Q rating comes in last. Perhaps being last isn’t new for the Warhawks; being a distant last, however, is a recent development.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Monroe, La.

Nickname
Warhawks

Returning starters
13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 94

2011 record
(4-8, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 103

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 8
    vs. Arkansas (in Little Rock, Ark.)
  • Sept. 15
    at Auburn
  • Sept. 22
    Baylor
  • Sept. 29
    at Tulane
  • Oct. 6
    at M.T.S.U.
  • Oct. 13
    F.A.U.
  • Oct. 20
    at W.K.U.
  • Oct. 27
    South Alabama
  • Nov. 3
    U.L.L.
  • Nov. 8
    at Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 17
    North Texas
  • Nov. 24
    at F.I.U.

Last year’s prediction

I don’t even see U.L.M. topping last season’s win total, in fact, thanks to issues along the offensive line and a defense that remains a question mark despite the return of eight starters. My worry with the offense is that the running game never takes off, leaving the attack too one-dimensional; even in the Sun Belt, it’s very possible to become too unbalanced offensively. Overall, however, this is a fine team, one firmly ahead of the bottom tier in the conference. But I have my concerns. Is U.L.M. ready to take the next step, or are the Warhawks still a year away?

2011 recap

In a nutshell It’s somewhat ironic that U.L.M. hired an offense-first head coach, Todd Berry, yet nearly every one of the Warhawks’ wins over the last two seasons has come on the back of the defense. For another slice of irony, consider this: several times last fall, U.L.M. was able to put points on the board – scoring 84 points over one three-game losing streak, for example – but had its defense suffer an uncharacteristic breakdown. In summation: the defense was often good, the offense occasionally good, but rarely did the two work in concert. That they did not over that three-game stretch during Sun Belt play kept U.L.M. home during postseason play, once again, stretching the program’s bowl-less streak to 60 years. U.L.M.’s program is 60 years old, by the way.

High point In 2008, U.L.M.’s 31-30 win over Troy snapped the Trojans’ 13-game Sun Belt winning streak. After a loss in 2009, the Warhawks have now won two straight over Troy and three of four. Last year’s 38-10 win was noteworthy for another reason: it was U.L.M.’s first victory in Troy in six tries.

Low point The Warhawks weren’t going to beat Florida State, T.C.U. or Iowa, so no harm done with the 1-3 non-conference mark. The season unraveled during a 1-4 stretch open Sun Belt play; worse yet, three of the four losses came by a combined nine points. There was a 31-28 overtime loss to Western Kentucky – painful. Then there was a 36-35 loss to rival U.L.L., complete with a meltdown over the game’s final two minutes – unbearably painful.

Tidbit While unable to get the Warhawks over the hump during his seven seasons with the program, from 2003-9, Charlie Weatherbie did make two outstanding coordinator hires. One was Berry, U.L.M.’s offensive coordinator from 2004-5 and, beginning in 2010, Weatherbie’s replacement as head coach. The second was defensive coordinator Troy Reffett, who arrived in 2009 and has, over the last three seasons, completely rebuilt the Warhawks’ defense into the Sun Belt’s best. He was an immediate hit: Reffett’s first defense posted the second-biggest defensive turnaround in the F.B.S., cutting off 97.7 yards per game off the team’s 2008 total. U.L.M. has forced at least one turnover in 31 of Reffett’s 36 games with the program, including at least two in seven games last season. The five turnover-free games: North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette in 2011, L.S.U. in 2010 and Arizona State and Western Kentucky in 2009.

Tidbit (Troy edition) A few more notes from U.L.M.’s 38-10 win over Troy. Tied at 3-3 at halftime, U.L.M. outgained Troy, 325-6, over the game’s final 30 minutes. Troy was held to -14 rushing altogether; since the start of the 2007 season, the Trojans had never gained less than 41 yards on the ground. The 28-point defeat marked the worst home loss in Larry Blakeney’s 21-year tenure with the Trojans.

Former players in the N.F.L.

1 DE Aaron Morgan (Jacksonville).

Arbitrary top five list

N.B.A. backcourts
1. Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe.
2. Jerry West and Gail Goodrich.
3. Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.
4. Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman.
5. Magic Johnson and Byron Scott.

Coaching

Todd Berry (Tulsa ’83), 9-15 after two seasons at Louisiana-Monroe. This is Berry’s second turn as a head coach on the F.B.S. level, joining a disastrous four-year stint at Army, where he went 5-34 from 2000-3. His first Army team — the Cadets were a member of Conference USA at this point, not an Independent — went 1-10; he followed that season with a 3-8 mark in 2001 and a 1-11 mark in 2002. Army opted to fire Berry after the Cadets opened the 2003 season with six straight losses, a year they finished with an F.B.S.-record 13 defeats. He spent the six years prior to being hired at U.L.M. remaking his reputation as a solid offensive coordinator; this re-branding began with a two-year stint in Monroe, when he helped the Warhawks to a shared Sun Belt championship in 2005. Berry also brings experience as a head coach on the F.C.S. level back to Monroe: he was the head coach at Illinois State from 1996-99, helping the perennial cellar-dweller land its first conference title since 1950 in his final season. As an assistant, Berry has also served as the offensive coordinator at East Carolina (1992-95) and U.N.L.V. (2007-9), holding assistant head coach duties over his three years under Mike Sanford with the Rebels. Berry is an offensive-first coach, which does make it ironic that his two teams with the Warhawks have won games on defense. But seeing how his defense has played, perhaps all U.L.M. needs to reach bowl play is a slight offensive improvement. For that optimism, here’s a dose of pessimism: After losing eight games last fall, Berry’s record as a head coach on the F.B.S. level stands at 14-50.

Players to watch

It’s not now or never for Kolton Browning — he is only a junior, after all — but it is time for the Warhawks’ seasoned, veteran starter to play quarterback at an all-conference level. At times, Browning is the Sun Belt’s most productive passer: he was outstanding against Troy last fall, pitch-perfect against Middle Tennessee, and as a freshman, he had a streak of seven straight games with at least 200 passing yards. At other times, however, Browning’s lack of consistency costs U.L.M. key conference games: Arkansas State and F.I.U., for example.

After a promising rookie campaign, it’s safe to say that Browning took a step back last fall. It’s not just about the numbers, which were due to decline thanks to the tough non-conference schedule; it’s all about the hot-and-cold runs that defined his season. As a junior, Browning must limit the cold streaks and lend the U.L.M. offense a steady hand under center. When he’s on his game, there’s no doubt that Browning can play at an all-conference level — he has the dual-threat ability to average 250 yards of total offense per game, with 40 or so yards coming on the ground. But over the last year, he’s been surpassed on the Sun Belt’s quarterback totem pole by Troy’s Corey Robinson, Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin and, most painful of all, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Blaine Gautier.

The Warhawks have a nice running game, of which Browning is a major part. He rushed for 443 yards a season ago despite two significant impediments: one, he gained only 25 yards over the team’s first three games — Florida State and T.C.U. were two of those teams; and U.L.M. allowed 35 sacks, 13th-most in the country. So Browning did a better job than his 443-yard total suggests, particularly during Sun Belt play.

U.L.M. has a clear top three at running back: Jryuss Edwards (team-best 667 yards, 11 touchdowns), Centarius Donald (414 yards) and Mitchell Bailey (212 yards). Edwards leads the way, as you’d think, and would be a 1,00-yard threat if not for the team’s by-committee approach. He teams with Donald to give U.L.M. a strong one-two punch; with Browning, U.L.M.’s top three running options stand right alongside the Sun Belt’s best.

The spread has been good to this running game: the wide sets give U.L.M.’s runners more room to operate, helping backs like Edwards and Donald put up some impressive totals during conference play. The spread also leads to a passing game that shares the wealth among six or seven top receivers: seven Warhawks made at least 17 receptions last fall, including Edwards, who added 31 receptions for 203 yards. The receiver corps will look very similar to a season ago, minus Anthony McCall and Luther Ambrose — the Warhawks’ leading receiver in 2010 — who combined for 43 receptions.

This is a group led by senior Brent Leonard (team-best 69 receptions for 751 yards), a reigning second-team all-Sun Belt selection, and junior Tavarese Mays (50 for 617). While Berry did shake up his rotation last fall, promoting this pair in place of Ambrose as U.L.M.’s top target, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Leonard and Mays don’t again lead the way for Browning in the passing game. The Warhawks also return sophomore Colby Harper (27 for 291), junior Je’Ron Hamm (17 for 257, a team-best 15.1 yards per reception) and redshirt freshmen Rashon Ceaser and Cortney Davis.

While U.L.M. has depth and experience, it could use some big-play ability. The Warhawks have been able to find big plays in the running game under Berry; they could use the same in passing game. Greater explosiveness throwing the football could help U.L.M. convert on third and long, where the offense struggled terribly last fall.

Two starters must be replaced on a line that protected the quarterback as poorly as any team in college football. Expect some improvement in that regard come the fall, but the Warhawks will miss strong side tackle Anthony Montgomery in the running game. One of the biggest surprises during the spring was seeing sophomore Jeremy Burton, Montgomery’s backup last fall, step into a starting role at left tackle ahead of returning starter Joseph Treadwell, a sophomore.

Burton can’t be much worse than Treadwell in keeping pass rushers off of Browning; still, you’d think that last year’s experience would have helped Treadwell maintain his hold on the starting job. Sophomore Ben Risenhoover and senior Jonathan Gill are back at left and right guard, respectively, while juniors Josh Allen and Jon Fisher battle to replace Ryan McCaul at center. Another sophomore, Demiere Burkett, will get first crack at replacing Montgomery at right tackle.

Remember the note above: Reffett’s defense is certainly stingy — 22nd nationally in yards allowed per game last fall — but to me, the group’s calling card is how it forces opposing offenses to make mistakes. Part of this is due to overall aggressiveness, which disrupts timing, but it’s also due in part to the 3-3-5 look, which remains very rare on the F.B.S. level. For example, when I spoke with an individual associated with Florida State late last summer, he mentioned how U.L.M. made him nervous: not necessarily because he was scared they’d lose, but because he knew that preparing for that defense was unlike any other game preparation F.S.U. would undertake all season — because the 3-3-5 presents such a different look. That’s a testament to Reffett, U.L.M. and this defense.

There’s little reason to think that the Warhawks are going to go from the Sun Belt’s best defense to the conference’s worst. There’s no reason to think that, actually. But there’s some reason for concern when considering that U.L.M. must replace eight starters; in extension, considering how vital this defense is to the Warhawks’ success, there’s reason to worry about how this team as a whole will fare if the defense doesn’t remain among the top 30 in the country.

The biggest issues can be found in the secondary, which I’ll touch on below. But the front six isn’t devoid of concern, especially with the loss of starting ends Troy Evans and Ken Dorsey, the team’s best pass rushers. U.L.M. will combat their departures by moving nose tackle Kentarius Caldwell (27 tackles, 3.5 sacks) out to end, which is a wise move. Beyond the fact that Caldwell showed an ability to get into the backfield last fall, his 260-pound frame is best suited to play end in U.L.M.’s three-man front.

Not that the Warhawks have a big body to move to nose tackle: Gerrand Johnson, a 265-pound redshirt freshman, is Caldwell’s projected replacement. The lack of size isn’t a huge worry, however, as Reffett will never sacrifice quickness for size. Sophomores Joey Gautney, Malcolm Edmond and Darius Lively join Caldwell at end.

U.L.M.’s linebackers are bigger than most — each probable member of the rotation is at least 225 pounds — but they can still run. Two starters are back from last season; the only loss, however, is Jason Edwards, who lead the Warhawks in tackles from his middle linebacker spot. While Edwards will be missed, there are high expectations surrounding his replacement, JUCO transfer Austin Moss, who started his career at Arkansas. Moss is currently listed as the starter in the middle, ahead of senior R.J. Young (45 tackles, 6.5 for loss), one of last year’s starters on the outside.

While DaCorris Ford has taken over Young’s starting role, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Young move back into the starting lineup at outside linebacker. At the very least, Young has to hold a substantial role in this defense; with so few returning starters, U.L.M. could really use his experience. Senior Cameron Blakes (50 tackles, 7.0 for loss), a local product, rounds out the linebacker corps. Moss should shine in Edwards’ old role, but Blakes, Young and Ford help give the Warhawks’ second level some depth and production.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary The secondary’s the key to the whole deal. As if the number didn’t tell you that — the five defensive backs in the 3-3-5 — pay close attention to how good a job U.L.M. has done forcing turnovers since Reffett arrived in 2009; while the front six plays a role, the secondary is doing yeoman’s work both against the run and the pass. The Warhawks lost two starters off of last year’s group: cornerback Tim Taylor, for starters, not to mention rover Darius Prelow, a first-team all-Sun Belt selection. Each leaves a gaping hole in the secondary.

Start at cornerback. The Warhawks will rely heavily on senior Vincent Eddie, who must continue serving as U.L.M.’s stopper without Taylor holding down the fort on the other side. The question here isn’t whether Eddie can continue to produce; the bigger issue is whether Taylor’s replacement can produce, because opposing quarterbacks are sure to look in his direction early and often. Otis Peterson, a past starter who missed last season after suffering an injury in August, will step into Taylor’s shoes. Another option is sophomore Rob’Donovan Lewis, who started the first game of last season but was quickly moved back into a reserve role.

With nice depth at safety — the Warhawks bring back Cordero Smith, Khairi Usher and Isaiah Newsome — the focus shifts to replacing Prelow at rover. While Dorsey and Evans played at an all-conference level last fall, Prelow was the start of this defense: aggressive against the run and a ball-hawk against the pass, Prelow might have been the best defensive back in the entire Sun Belt. He was also the glue of the secondary, so it’s natural to expect U.L.M. to suffer some drop at the position when going from Prelow to Henry Mitchell (19 tackles), his replacement. Mitchell might be good, but he won’t be Prelow.

Game(s) to watch

The 2012 season greets U.L.M. with Arkansas, Auburn and Baylor. Don’t look for the Warhawks to hit the ground running, in other words. Even if Baylor’s offense presents a major challenge to U.L.M., that the Bears come to Monroe make that game one of the highlights of the season. While the Warhawks get the rival Ragin’ Cajuns at home, U.L.M. does play three leading Sun Belt contenders on the road: F.I.U., Arkansas State and Western Kentucky.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s not all about the defense, but you can’t help but be alarmed by the lost starters U.L.M. must replace off of last year’s superb group. Seeing that the Warhawks have won nine games over the last two years — and been close to winning several others — thanks to this defense, how will this team fare with a nearly brand-new starting lineup come September? In all likelihood, the Warhawks are going to take a step back defensively in 2012. The pass rush lost its stars, forcing U.L.M. to rejigger its defensive front as a result. The secondary brings back some talent, but loses its leader. If the offense remains inconsistent, the Warhawks are not going to come anywhere close to competing for a Sun Belt title. This is why it’s not all about the defense: U.L.M. can offset a slight defensive slide with greater offensive production. I’m far from sold on the Warhawks scoring enough points to survive this schedule, let alone make a run towards bowl play and a conference championship. Begin with an offensive line still rounding into form, one that will continue to improve on a weekly basis but remains, as of today, far too insecure in pass protection. And if the line struggles protecting the quarterback, look for Browning to again struggle with his own bouts of inconsistency. If that happens, the Warhawks will have no chance of unseating the top slice of the Sun Belt — F.I.U., Arkansas State, Western Kentucky and the Ragin’ Cajuns. The Warhawks get the following teams on the road: the Red Wolves, Golden Panthers, Hilltoppers, Arkansas and Auburn. Baylor and U.L.L. come to Monroe. With this schedule, a defense in transition and an offense short on answers, I can’t see how U.L.M. finally cracks into bowl play.

Dream season U.L.M.’s third season in Berry’s system finds the offense moving the ball with the sort of consistency missing over the last two years; along with another opportunistic defense, the offense helps the Warhawks land the Sun Belt title and the first bowl berth in program history.

Nightmare season The defense falls apart against the three B.C.S. conference teams and never recovers, allowing more than 400 points for the first time since 2003 in a 2-10 season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Louisiana-Monroe fans congregate? In terms of the most active message board, check out Warhawk Nation. Another option is Warhawk Report, though it’s quieter in terms of chatter. The local newspaper, the News Star, gives periodic updates of all U.L.M. sports.

Louisiana-Monroe’s all-name nominee TE Harley Scioneaux.

Word Count

Through 18 teams 58,856.

Up Next

Who is No. 106? While you might think tomorrow’s program has never experienced as bad a three-year stretch as the one its currently in, that’s not the case. This program once went 2-28 over a three-year span, posting two winless seasons and failing to score 100 points in each year.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    Colorado State pulled off that failure of a stretch in the ’60s.

  2. Mark S says:

    That’s nothin’…….my Northwestern Wildcats went 4-61-1 over a 4-year span while scoring less than 100 twice. They also managed to give up 505 points one year. The years covering 1976-1981 weren’t kind to the Cats.

  3. jjncaa says:

    I think ULM is waay underrated, they are capable to make a splash in the Sun Belt this year

  4. Farbar says:

    ULM will have a rough go of it in OOC play although I expect a win over Tulane and putting a scare into both Auburn and Baylor. However, they have the horses to take on the Sun Belt teams. An 8-4 is very possible but I’m looking at 6-6 at worse. If the breakdown that the writer predicts happens, then I think ULM goes 4-8 again.

  5. Eksynyt says:

    I think it’s Oregon State up next. A moribund program that once had a stretch in the early 1980s when they only won 2 games in 3 years while the late coach Joe Avezzano was the head man.

  6. ulmfan says:

    I disagree with your assessement on the QB. line not blocking and play calling and playing with a fractured sternum the rest of the season that was suffered in the Ark. State game. he’s the best QB in the belt imo hell he’s kicked Troy’s Robinson ass head to head the past 2 years.

  7. Alexander Payne says:

    Kansas?

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