It was a successful first season for Matt Viator as ULM exceeded expectations by posting a 3-5 record in the Sun Belt and going 4-8 overall. The season was highlighted by knocking off both Georgia State and South Alabama in November as double-digit underdogs. Now with 15 total starters returning, the Warhawks appear able to do some more damage in the Fun Belt.
Viator’s staff answered some much needed questions by hitting the JUCO market hard this past recruiting period. Now the Warhawks have a solid offensive line, two experienced quarterbacks, and a defense with seven or eight likely upperclassmen starters. With another brutal schedule, it’ll be tough for ULM to improve on last season’s win total.
Last year was a rough year for first year coordinator Matt Kubik as the Warhawks finished 109th in points per game. ULM only averaged 5.1 yards per play as they struggled to produce explosive plays in both the run and pass. Because of quarterback injuries, the run game gained a lot of experience and they seem poised for a big year on the ground in 2017.
Both Garrett Smith and Caleb Evans started for ULM last fall at quarterback and it wasn’t great. Smith, after showing some potential as a redshirt freshman, saw his stats take a nosedive in each category. He would then go on to miss the last four games due to injury. Evans was a notch below Smith, but ULM did pick up two big Sun Belt wins with him behind center. It’s a battle still ongoing and appears Evans may be the pick but I expect we will see both take snaps at some point for the Warhawks.
The running back group will be the strength of the team and ULM should easily average over 200 yards per game on the ground. The Warhawks return their top eight rushers from last season and these backs should be a nice force on the ground. There are plenty of options available for Kubik to tinker with. Thomas Koufie was the best of the bunch last season as he averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his first year over from JUCO. Duke Carter IV and Ben Luckett were fairly inefficient as they both averaged less than four yards per carry. Austin Vaughn had the highest opportunity rate among all backs and he deserves to get more carries as a sophomore. Alabama transfer Derrick Gore should get thrown in the rotation right away.
Marcus Green led this squad in receiving last fall pulling in 36 receptions with a 60% catch rate. However, he averaged just under 10 yards per game. The explosiveness from this passing game will come from juniors Xavier Brown and RJ Turner. Both averaged just under 19 yards per catch as the duo reeled in seven of the team’s 15 passing touchdowns last fall. ULM is still looking for answers at tight end.
Led by senior guard Frank Sutton, Jr. the offensive line will enter 2017 as the best position group in the program. The reason this running game has high expectations is because of this offensive line. Along with Sutton, every other guy on the offensive line has starting experience and this could be one of the best offensive lines in the Sun Belt. This group did not allow negative runs (stopped at line of scrimmage or for loss 16% of the time) and was very good at protecting the passer (45th in adjusted sack rate). Expect this unit to do some damage this fall and guard Devin Jackson could join Sutton on some all-conference teams.
Man, was it ugly last year. Mike Collins’ group was once of the worst in the FBS as they gave up 39.1 points per game while being ranked dead last against the run and 114th against the pass per S&P+. But with eight starters returning and JUCO help ready to plug some holes, this group should be better in 2017.
The Warhawks run a 4-2-5 scheme where they try to get as much speed on the field as possible. That’s even true on the defensive line as ULM may be the smallest front in the Sun Belt. The best of the bunch is defensive end Caleb Tucker who led the defensive line in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks last fall. Nose Jaylen Veasley and end Shaquille Warren both return after starting all 12 games last season. ULM will be counting on newcomers to fill the last starting spot and to provide depth. Collins must find someone to help Tucker.
The strength of this group will be at the second level as ULM had to throw some young players to the wolves last year. Sophomore Chase Day and junior David Griffith were the top two tacklers off of last year’s squad. The duo was pretty dynamic as they cominbed to record 22 tackles for loss. These two are a solid building block for the future. At ULM’s buck position, which is essentially nickel, starter Marcus Hubbard returns after posting 33 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. This is the backbone of the defense.
In the secondary, ULM returns senior corner Juwan Offray and junior safety Wesley Thompson. Offray started all 12 games last season and he should be joined by JUCO transfer JJ Dallas at the other corner spot. Nick Ingram, as a freshman, was very productive as he posted 55 stops. With some JUCO help on the way, this unit should be much better.
Craig Ford had a solid sophomore campaign last fall knocking in nine field goals and going 35-for-36 on extra points. Ford was a perfect inside of 40 but only went 42.9% from long distance. ULM will be breaking in a new punter, but sophomore Harrison Helm averaged over 42 yards per punt at FCS Southeastern Louisiana. This could eventually become the best kicking duo in the Fun Belt.
Marcus Green returned both punts and kickoffs for the Warhawks last season and was just average here. However, he’s very dependable and is someone the coaching staff can trust. Markis McCray show some potential as a kick returner averaging nearly 23 yards per return as a sophomore.
It’s no secret that this offense will lean on the ground game and if Garrett Smith wins the starting quarterback job, that will make this attack even more deadly with his dual-threat ability. It was an already loaded running back room with all rushers returning, but Viator’s staff added a big time chip via the transfer market.
Derrick Gore arrives in Monroe as a grad transfer after spending the last two seasons in Tuscaloosa. Gore played mostly special teams for the Crimson Tide, but the New York native has been productive when given carries. On 18 attempts, Gore went for 5.2 yards per carry and half of these attempts went for at least five yards. No running back on ULM’s roster came close to this feat last fall. This will be a solid option for Kubik to use this fall.
You could make the argument that ULM had the worst defense in the country in Viator’s first season as the Warhawks struggled to do anything well. However, linebacker David Griffith emerged and the upcoming junior showed some superstar potential.
Griffith, in 12 games, recorded 12 tackles for loss, three sacks, two pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Improve on each of those numbers and get up to triple-digits in tackles and you could be looking at the best linebacker in the Sun Belt. I think Griffith has the potential to be a game changer for ULM as a redshirt junior.
There is still a long way to go in Monroe. Viator did an excellent job in his first season in charge of an FBS program as the Warhawks some how found a way to win four games. Now it’s time for this program to make a step forward and show some improvement. Offensively, they need to find out who their QB of the future is going to be to help balance out a strong rushing attack. Defensively, just get better. In every facet.
There is a really strong possibility that ULM could improve in just about everything and still post a 4-8 or 3-9 record. The schedule is brutal with road trips to Memphis, Florida State, and Auburn. However, they seem to have a good coaching staff in place and there are some young players on the roster that are contributing. Good times are coming to Monroe, but it won’t be this season.