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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. 114: Louisiana-Monroe

Henry Clay, the original War Hawk, is not confident in Louisiana-Monroe's chances in 2010.

There is no second act in life, or so it’s said. Don’t tell that to Todd Berry, the new Louisiana-Monroe coach whose career bottomed out during his disastrous four-year stint as the head coach at Army from 2000-3. Berry has done his best to remake his reputation in the year’s since, a period that included two relatively successful seasons as the U.L.M. offensive coordinator under his predecessor, Charlie Weatherbie. His task, much as it was with the Cadets, is to bring to the forefront a program mired in years of irrelevance. Few expect the Warhawks to ever break upon the national stage — though the program did so briefly with its win over Alabama a few years ago — but the program is tired of mediocrity. Is Berry really the right guy for this?

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Monroe, La.

Nickname
Warhawks

Returning starters
10 (6 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 108

2009 record
(6-6, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 91

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 11
    at Arkansas (in Little Rock, Ark.)
  • Sept. 18
    at Arkansas St.
  • Sept. 25
    S.E. Louisiana
  • Oct. 2
    at Auburn
  • Oct. 9
    Florida Atlantic
  • Oct. 16
    W.K.U.
  • Oct. 23
    at Middle Tennessee
  • Oct. 30
    Troy
  • Nov. 6
    at F.I.U.
  • Nov. 13
    at L.S.U.
  • Nov. 20
    North Texas
  • Nov. 27
    La.-Lafayette

Last year’s prediction

After proclaiming U.L.M. as a bonafide Sun Belt contender a year ago, I’m reeling back my expectations a bit for this coming season. This is not to say that I don’t believe the Warhawks are capable of again reaching six wins, I do; I’m just hesitant to put them in the upper tier of the Sun Belt, an area populated by Troy and Florida Atlantic. I would place U.L.M. firmly alongside Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State in the hunt for third place, though the Warhawks are somewhat behind the latter pair.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Like its friendly neighbor in Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe has played with a measure of consistency (at least five wins in four of the last six seasons) yet remained unable to crack the top two spots in the Sun Belt. And the conference, as well all know, sends only two teams – barring an unexpected undefeated season and B.C.S. bowl birth – to postseason play. The conference’s lack of bowl tie-ins kept the Warhawks at home despite finishing with six wins, tying the program’s personal record set on the F.B.S. level in 2007. This lack of development cost Charlie Weatherbie his job after seven seasons and a 31-51 record on the job, leading me to come to the obvious conclusion that this program is looking to become a more permanent fixture in the top third of the Sun Belt. And, possibly, take one of those two bowl tie-ins on a yearly basis.

High point Wins in five of seven games from Sept. 26 – Nov. 14. Two of those came against woeful North Texas and Western Kentucky, but three straight victories over Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Arkansas State in Sun Belt play represented Louisiana-Monroe’s finest stretch on the 2009 season.

Low point Losses to Troy and Middle Tennessee State, the two top teams in the conference, relegated U.L.M. to second-tier Sun Belt status. Turnovers were the Warhawks’ undoing; needing to be perfect, U.L.M. gave the ball away a combined total of seven times in those two games.

Tidbit There are five F.B.S. programs in the proud state of Louisiana: U.L.M., Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech, L.S.U. and Tulane. Last season marked the second consecutive season – and the second time this decade – that at least three of these schools posted non-losing records. In 2008, U.L.L., Louisiana Tech and L.S.U. each earned at least six wins. Last fall, U.L.M. joined U.L.L. and L.S.U. while Louisiana Tech slipped to 4-8. Tulane, whose academic reputation remains flawless while its football program spins its wheels in the mud, has not had a non-losing season since 2002.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 S Chris Harris (Chicago), LB Cardia Jackson (St. Louis), DE Aaron Morgan (Jacksonville), S Kevin Payne (St. Louis).

Arbitrary top five list

Five most influential members of the 12th U.S. Congress
1. Henry Clay, Ken.
2. John C. Calhoun, S.C.
3. Felix Grundy, Tenn.
4. Langdon Cheves, S.C.
5. Richard Mentor Johnson, Ken.

Coaching

Todd Berry (Tulsa ’83), entering his first season at Louisiana-Monroe. This is Berry’s second stint as a head coach on the F.B.S. level, joining a disastrous four-year stint at Army (5-36 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 0-7, a year they finished with an F.B.S.-record 13 losses. He has spent the last six years remaking his reputation as a solid offensive coordinator; this re-branding began with a two-year stint at U.L.M., when he helped the Warhawks to a shared Sun Belt championship in 2005. That season also saw Berry tutor quarterback Steven Jyles to Sun Belt Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year honors. 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 1999. His teams at Illinois State set nearly 100 new school records, mostly on offense. As an assistant, Berry has also served as the offensive coordinator at East Carolina (1992-95) and U.N.L.V. (2007-9); the latter stop also saw him hold assistant head coach duties under Mike Sanford. Though the Rebels failed to reach more than six wins over that three-year span, Berry was noted for the work he did coaching quarterback Omar Clayton and Mike Clausen, who alternated time in 2009. Not an overwhelmingly positive resume, and that woeful record at Army — a program, like U.L.M., that needs solid coaching to compete — has me concerned. Nevertheless, Berry has done enough to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of U.L.M., and deserves a second shot at succeeding as a head coach on this level.

Key losses

Offense Three starters must be replaced off of U.L.M.’s undersized offensive line. The biggest loss is that of multiple-year starter Brett Thompson, who finished his career at left guard after starting 10 games at center as a junior. Former tight end Mitch Doyle took on the task at left tackle admirably in his final season, though he, like Thompson, was undersized for the position. Emmanuel Lockett started all 12 games at center, while 2008 starting tackle Ryan Dercher spent all of 2009 as the team’s top offensive line reserve. Also gone are U.L.M.’s top two receivers from a year ago, LaGregory Sapp and Darrell McNeal. Sapp rebounded from an average junior season to lead all Warhawks with 40 receptions and 784 yards, ranking in the top five in the Sun Belt with his 19.6 yards per catch average. McNeal chipped in with 38 receptions for 542 yards and a team-leading six touchdowns.

Defense U.L.M. must replace two of the finest defensive players in recent school history, quite a tall task. The first is linebacker Cardia Jackson, the Sun Belt all-time record holder with 318 career stops. 117 of those tackles came in his senior season, along with seven tackles for loss and one a half sacks, helping Jackson share conference defensive player of the year honors. Despite the post-season accolade, Jackson’s finest season likely came as a junior. In 2008, Jackson posted a career-best 127 tackles — ranking eighth in the nation in tackles per game — and a pair of interceptions. In all, Jackson earned all-Sun Belt honors three times, including first-team honors as a junior and senior. Though Jackson is certainly the biggest loss, he is one of four starters lost off the front six of U.L.M.’s 3-3-5 defense. Fellow linebacker Josh Thomas finished second on the team in tackles in 2009 with 78 (7 for loss); an even bigger loss is that of end Aaron Morgan, whose well-rounded senior year (52 tackles, 16.5 for loss, 9 sacks) placed him in the upper echelon of Sun Belt defensive linemen.

Three more starters are gone in the secondary, led by free safety Greg James. The 2009 first-team all-Sun Belt pick had four interceptions as a senior, giving him a program- and conference-record 17 picks for his career. He finished his career with 45 careers starts, tying Jackson for most on the team at the conclusion of last season. James Truxillo, a rover in U.L.M.’s defensive set, and cornerback Otis Stamps combined to make another 49 career starts and five interceptions a year ago; Truxillo’s three picks ranked second on the team. With seven lost starters altogether, the Warhawks will have to rebuild the defense on the fly in 2010.

Players to watch

There has been a change at quarterback, and a surprising one at that. Out is incumbent starter Trey Revell; in is redshirt freshman Kolton Browning, thanks to his strong play during spring practice. Regardless of how well Browning might have played during the spring, that Berry would choose to open his debut season with an unproven commodity over Revell, a senior, is surprising. Revell even played pretty well last year, well enough to have thought his job to be secure: 1,739 yards passing, 12 touchdowns and an efficiency rating of 134.6. Not sure what to make of this move.

Whether it’s Revell or Browning taking snaps, senior running back Frank Goodin will be doing the heavy lifting. Goodin rushed for 1,126 yards and 13 touchdowns last fall — the latter the second-most in school history — en route to earning all-conference honors for the second time. His fine junior season also helped U.L.M. fans forget Calvin Dawson, who broke the 1,000-yard multiple times during his four-year starting career. Last season saw Goodin live up to the hype that developed following his freshman season, but even more will be expected from the senior in 2010.

Speaking of living up to his early hype, Anthony McCall had an awful sophomore season — 7 receptions for 71 yards — after setting a U.L.M. freshman record with six touchdown grabs in 2008. He’ll need to step up, given that the top two receivers from 2009 have departed. McCall will get plenty of help from the Luther Ambrose, who can make an impact both as a pass-catcher (34 grabs for 455 yards and 4 touchdowns) and a runner (311 yards rushing, 8.9 yards per carry). There will be a bit of reshuffling along the offensive line, with 2009 starter Justin Roberts moving from right tackle to left tackle, and right guard Jonathan Gill moving from right guard to left guard.

New faces will dot the defense. The Warhawks do return two sure things, however: junior end Troy Evans and senior outside linebacker Theo Smith. The post-Cardia Jackson defense will be led by this pair. Evans was overshadowed by Morgan as a sophomore — and, perhaps, rightfully so — but he put forth a solid debut season as the full-time starter: 31 tackles (8 for loss) and 6.5 sacks. The Warhawks will need to replace Morgan’s nine sacks, and hope that Evans will help offset that lost production with further improvement as a junior.

Smith is the team’s lone returning starter at linebacker. He’ll again man one of the two outside linebacker spots; juniors Jason Edwards and C.C. Carpenter will fight it out for the starting role in the middle, while either DaCorris Ford and Cameron Blakes, both sophomores, will start on the opposite side. Of the quartet, only Ford earned any significant playing time in 2009, notching 11 tackles and a sack. Troy Giddens, a senior, is a third contender for snaps at outside linebacker.

Position battles to watch

Secondary Finding three new starters in the defensive backfield is of the utmost importance, as you’d expect in U.L.M.’s base defensive alignment. The Warhawks do return a pair of starters in the junior cornerback Nate Brown and the junior strong safety Darius Prewlow; this duo will be relied upon to provide a measure of experience in this otherwise new secondary. Each will retain their starting role, while in an unsurprising development, two of last season’s backups will ascend to the starting lineup: Alex Ibe will step in for Truxillo at rover, and Khairi Usher will attack the difficult task of replacing James at free safety. The second cornerback position opposite Brown remains up for grabs. The junior Montavious Hill currently holds the top spot, ahead of sophomore Robert Nelson, as the Warhawks broke spring practice.

Game(s) to watch

The season finale against Louisiana-Lafayette is always meaningful, though this year’s game may take on increased importance regarding each team’s hopes of reaching .500. Getting wins against Troy or Middle Tennessee State will be a must if Louisiana-Monroe is to land one of the top two spots in the conference. May be too much to ask.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell A lot of losses here, especially on defense. Players like Jackson or James don’t come around very often at a program like U.L.M., and there does not seem to be any players on the roster who can fill those open positions and come close to matching their predecessor’s production. This is not a slight: Jackson and James rank among the finest performers in the history of the program, and finding immediate replacements will be a tall task.There is some talent on offense, however, leading me to wonder whether U.L.M. can score enough points to perhaps surprise an additional team or two in conference play. In that case, this ranking would be off by a dozen spots or so. Yet I feel secure in penciling U.L.M. in for a rebuilding season, both because of its personnel losses and the relative inexperience of Todd Berry, who will need to re acclimate himself to running the show on the F.B.S. level. I’m not going to say that Berry cannot eventually get the Warhawks past the six-win peak that plagued Weatherbie, just that it is highly unlikely he does so in 2010.

Dream season U.L.M. goes 7-5, 6-2 in Sun Belt play, and earns its first bowl bid since moving to the F.B.S. in 1994.

Nightmare season The Warhawks slip to 2-10, the program’s worst record since 2003.

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.

Tidbit (nickname edition) In addition to being the name of the 12th U.S. Congress and the Army Air Corps’ Curtiss P-40 fighter plane, “Warhawk” can also refer to an Atari video game release of 1985.

Up Next

Who is No. 113? Our next school is the non-B.C.S. conference half of a rivalry named after a Super Bowl-winning N.F.L. head coach.

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Comments

  1. Freakville says:

    San Jose St.?

  2. Freakville says:

    What do I win?

    Paul: Until we get the P.S.R. t-shirts printed, you win only our respect of your college football knowledge.

  3. [...] No. 118. In all, there have been five teams from the Sun Belt in my bottom 20: North Texas, W.K.U., Louisiana-Monroe (No. 114), Florida International (No. 109) and Louisiana-Lafayette (No. [...]

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