No. 94: Louisiana-Monroe
By Paul Myerberg // May 27, 2011
It’s just the way things are, for better or for worse. The better: Louisiana-Monroe has a fine year in 2010, winning five games, and returns 19 of last season’s starters. Like Arizona State, which does the same, these two factors combine to raise expectations to a healthy level. Or is it unhealthy? The Warhawks haven’t made a bowl trip since joining the F.B.S. in 1994 – haven’t won more than six games in a season – so why should we expect this season to be any different? Raised expectations are a boon to the program, on the other hand, and it’s good, even if it feels strange, to think of Louisiana-Monroe as a program on the rise. Yet it never hurts to keep things in perspective, asking yourself if it’s really a good idea to get behind the idea of a U.L.M. bowl run when we’ve seen this program enter a year with raised expectations in the past only to find itself disappointed with the end result.
19 (11 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
at Florida St.
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 2
at North Texas
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
- Dec. 3
Last year’s prediction
A lot of losses here, especially on defense. 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.
In a nutshell U.L.M. came so, so close to bowl eligibility, though not to say that the Warhawks would have necessarily gone bowling with a 6-6 mark. They may have, however, taking the third Sun Belt tie-in that went to Middle Tennessee State, but that’s water under the bridge. Such conversations only matter when you take care of business down the stretch, which U.L.M. most definitely did not do against rival Louisiana-Lafayette in the season finale. At 5-6, needing only a win against a two-win conference foe, the Warhawks came up short: U.L.L. 23, U.L.M. 22, another year of close-but-no-cigar for the Warhawks. But there were still several positives to take from the season, like the play of a freshman quarterback, the play of the offense as a whole and the surprising coaching acumen displayed by a maligned first-year coach – maligned for his work elsewhere – in Todd Berry, who seems to have this program aimed in the right direction.
High point Without question, the high point of last season was an impressive 14-point win over Troy. The Warhawks put the clamps down on Troy’s high-powered offense, limiting the Trojans to a season-low 285 yards of offense while doing a fabulous job on third down.
Low point The loss to the Ragin’ Cajuns. Losing to your prime rival always hurts; losing to your prime rival with bowl hopes on the line hurts worse than you can imagine. That result might not have mattered had U.L.M. sneaked past Florida International three weeks before, but the Warhawks came up just short in overtime.
Tidbit That non-conference schedule is pretty tough, right? At least Grambling State is there to provide a respite between three national contenders. Well, maybe: U.L.M. has had some close calls with F.C.S. foes over the last six years, a period that began with a 27-23 loss in the 2005 season opener against Northwestern State. A year later, the Warhawks needed a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to sneak past Alcorn State, 24-6. In 2008, Grambling was within a touchdown in the fourth quarter before eventually losing by 14 points. U.L.M. had its way with Alabama A&M and Texas Southern in 2008 and 2009, but barely survived Southeastern Louisiana, 21-20, last September.
Tidbit (sacks edition) For the first time since joining the Sun Belt in 2001, the Warhawks posted more than 20 sacks in back-to-back seasons. Last fall’s 24 sacks was a shade less than the 27 posted in 2009, but when considering the faces U.L.M. had to replace off the 2009 defense, it was a pretty nice number. The total was good for fifth in the Sun Belt.
Former players in the N.F.L.
3 S Chris Harris (Chicago), LB Cardia Jackson (Green Bay), DE Aaron Morgan (Jacksonville).
Arbitrary top five list
American World War II flying aces
1. Richard Bong.
2. Thomas McGuire.
3. Gabby Gabreski.
4. David McCampbell.
5. Pappy Boyington.
Todd Berry (Tulsa ’83), 5-7 after one 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, where he went 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 season with seven 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); the latter stop also saw him hold assistant head coach duties under Mike Sanford. Not an overwhelmingly positive resume, and that woeful record at Army — a program, like U.L.M., that needs solid coaching to compete — will continue to factor heavily on Berry’s resume. Nevertheless, Berry did enough to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of U.L.M., and deserved a second shot at succeeding as a head coach on this level. Not a bad start so far with the Warhawks.
Players to watch
It takes some serious confidence to ditch a senior starter in favor of an unproven freshman at quarterback, but that’s what Berry did in 2010 to wonderful results. It helped that he was a first-year coach without any ties to the roster, but nevertheless: Berry deserves our commendation. It was easy to second-guess his decision at the time, easier to get behind it now that Kolton Browning’s debut season in the starting lineup went so swimmingly. It’s not a stretch to say that Browning’s season ranked among the best at his position in school history: 2,552 yards passing with 18 touchdowns; 2,937 yards of total offense, second-most in school history; eight straight 200-yard games, tying a school record; and a Sun Belt-best 61.9 percent completion rate. So Berry was clearly onto something.
The Warhawks have three underclassmen jostling for the top spot in the backfield, though it seems like sophomore Jyruss Edwards (375 yards, 4 scores) will have the honor of being U.L.M.’s lead back. He made four starts last fall, alternating time with the since-graduated Frank Goodin, but did well enough – third in rushing, first in yards per carry – to make him a player to watch with increased touches. Fellow sophomore Centarius Donald is in line to be the top reserve, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for former Arkansas transfer Mitchell Bailey, who should be the Warhawks’ big back in certain packages.
U.L.M. returns 194 of the 195 passes caught by wide receivers in 2010, so look for the passing game to continue to progress: Browning plus an experience receiver corps should keep Sun Belt defenses on their toes, perhaps opening up lanes for the running game. Browning’s favorite target, as was the case a year ago, will be senior Luther Ambrose; he led the Warhawks in receptions (65), yards (752) and scores (6). Sophomore Tavarese Maye (43 grabs for 505 yards) and Anthony McCall (33 for 479) are right behind Ambrose, with McCall, a senior, one of the more experienced players on the team. Junior Brett Leonard (33 catches) rounds out the starting lineup: it’s a game-tested group, and one that gives Browning much to work with.
I worry that the defensive line lacks the type of bulk needed to propel U.L.M.’s run defense where it needs to be in order to take this team seriously: the Warhawks need to do better than they did a year ago, when they allowed nearly 4.5 yards per carry and 23 scores on the ground. U.L.M. runs a 3-3-5, which does accentuate some of the speed along the back seven but makes stopping the run a chore, so a lineman like nose guard Kentarius Caldwell, a 254-pound sophomore, needs to do his best to occupy blockers and stand up at the point of attack. Caldwell’s a converted end, as you’d expect at that size, and his backup, converted tight end Emanuel Jefferies, has four games of starting experience but doesn’t look like the answer at this key position.
It’s a good thing U.L.M. has a pair of solid ends. The pairing of Ken Dorsey and Troy Evans might be the Sun Belt’s best, in fact, as both are very much in the mix for all-conference honors. Dorsey was there a year ago, when he posted 13 tackles for loss and 5 sacks; Evans has that type of potential, as he illustrated during a strong 2008 season, but lost much of last season due to injury.
Two leading tacklers are back at linebacker. Jason Edwards led the Warhawks with 75 stops (6.5 for loss, 2 sacks), with all-Sun Belt pick Cameron Blakes coming in second with 74 tackles (11.0 for loss, a team-best 6 sacks). So that pair will lead the way, with fifth-year senior Lincston Jones a slight surprise as the third starter as U.L.M. entered the summer. Jones has primarily made an impact on special teams thus far in his career.
The defense’s weakness, in my mind, is along the interior of the defensive line. Coming in second is the situation at cornerback, barring a nice improvement from two young defensive backs. The first is sophomore Otis Peterson, a converted receiver who was thrown into the fire early in 2010 and went on to make nine starts. He’ll be joined by another sophomore, Vincent Eddie, who steps into the starting role left vacant when would-be junior Robert Nelson was dismissed from the team. Peterson will be U.L.M.’s top cornerback, drawing the toughest assignments, and I’m not sure if he’s ready to take on such a daunting task.
All three starting safeties return in U.L.M.’s five-defensive back alignment. The best of the bunch is senior Darius Prelow, who can play several spots in the secondary but will be situated primarily at the Hawk position, the requite hybrid spot in this sort of system. A 25-game starter, Prelow earned all-Sun Belt honors last fall after making 74 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Former cornerback Nate Brown trumps Prelow’s experience with 26 career starts, making him the most experienced face on the defense. Joining this pair is Isaiah Newsome, a converted running back who started the final six games of 2010.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line I’m not exactly enamored with the offensive line. One caveat: the front didn’t really lock down a starting five until the start of Sun Belt play, which probably set back the group’s development in the early going. Nevertheless, the line was below average in protecting the quarterback, allowing 32 sacks, and never got into a rhythm in the running game, two areas where U.L.M. must improve it we’re to take this team seriously as a Sun Belt and bowl contender. As is the case throughout the offense, all five starters return from a season ago. Patrick Dvoracek and Anthony Montgomery will bookend the line at left and right tackle, respectively; Dvoracek, a former Utah State transfer, needs to remain healthy. Ryan McCaull moved around a bit last fall – he played left tackle for Dvoracek for much of October – but ended 2010 at center, where he’ll play this fall. The guards are Justin Roberts and Jonathan Gill, with the latter the lone lineman to start every game last fall. There is some experience along the second line, but U.L.M. will go to the mat with this starting five, so we need to see some improvement in the areas listed above: pass protection and the running game. Getting something going on the ground is particularly vital, as the Warhawks do not want to become one-dimensional.
Game(s) to watch
So you think you’re a real contender? Then hang with one of three big boys on that September schedule: don’t get your doors blown off by Florida State, T.C.U. and Iowa, but hang around and make things interesting. Then we can believe that the Warhawks are as good as some believe they can be. As for the Sun Belt, the title continues to go through Florida International and Troy, so it’s imperative that U.L.M. win at least one of those games.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell In this corner, we find a program eyeing its finest season in a generation; we find a program long accustomed to being overlooked on a national scale, with no success in the F.B.S. upon which to hang its hat, with zero winning experience to call upon as it heads into 2011. So why the raised expectations? Try the 20 returning starters – the entire offense – and the sense that last year was only a warm-up, whether justified or not. Please remember: U.L.M. won five games last fall, one by a single point over Southeastern Louisiana, two more by a combined eight points over Florida Atlantic and Western Kentucky, one by 12 points at home against North Texas – so let’s not start thinking this team is poised to take the leap, in my mind. I’m not ready to get that far behind the Warhawks, though in the hedging-my-bets category, it should be said that U.L.M. does have enough returning talent to move to the top of the line and take home the Sun Belt title. I don’t see it, however. 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. The concerns on defense revolve around a light line, one prone to being gashed on the ground, and a group of cornerbacks without optimal experience. 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?
Dream season The Warhawks live up to expectations, winning eight games for the first time on the F.B.S. level and heading to the program’s first-ever F.B.S. bowl game.
Nightmare season Remember all those close wins last fall? Those turn into close losses, and combined with a 1-3 start during non-conference play sends U.L.M. to a 3-9 finish.
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.
Through 27 teams 70,944.
Who is No. 93? Tomorrow’s program has an in-state rival, but we should use the term “rival” loosely: tomorrow’s team has won only 21 of 84 games against its in-state foe.
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Tags: Darius Prelow, Jyruss Edwards, Ken Dorsey, Kolton Browning, Louisiana-Monroe, Luther Ambrose, Sun Belt, Todd Berry
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