Our Sun Belt season recap series rolls on as we’ll now head into northern Louisiana as the rebuild continues for Matt Viator. Largely considered one of the toughest gigs in the FBS, in two years Viator has posted identical 4-8 records and this year the Warhawks went .500 in conference play. There is now some real momentum to be found in Monroe.
Not much was expected from the Warhawks this fall as the coaches pegged them for a ninth place finish while here at UDD we called for ULM to finish 10th in the Sun Belt. The program returned 15 starters from 2016 but entered camp with big questions at quarterback as junior Garrett Smith and sophomore Caleb Evans battled for the starting position. Alabama transfer Derrick Gore got plenty of attention as he appeared to be this team’s top running back. The defense was one of the worst in the FBS in 2016 and would need to make a big jump if the Warhawks were going to do some damage in 2017.
The year got off to an odd start in the opener as ULM took on Memphis in a monsoon in the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers posted huge rushing numbers but ULM showed some nice things to keep it competitive against a team that spent most of the season in the top 25. After dropping a home contest to Southern Miss in week three, the Warhawks would enter conference play with an 0-2 mark.
In perhaps the biggest moment of the season, ULM would go on the road to knock off UL-Lafayette 56-50 in double overtime. It was a coming out party for Evans as the sophomore threw for 343 yards, ran for 129 yards, and was responsible for six touchdowns. The Warhawks would follow that up with two big offensive performances as they scored at least 45 points in wins over Coastal Carolina and Texas State to start Sun Belt play with three wins.
The defensive inefficiencies would begin to catch up to the Warhawks as ULM would lose three in a row as they gave up at least 31 points in each loss. It started with Conner Manning and Georgia State dropping the hammer in what was a huge home game. The Warhawks struggled as Caleb Evans began to hit some bumps in the road.
This squad would bounce back on the first Saturday of November as they picked up the biggest win of the Viator era. ULM knocked off Appalachian State in Malone Stadium by a count of 52-45 in an absolute shootout. Evans again had a huge day as he threw for 356 yards and accounted for five touchdowns in the huge win. The loss would keep the Mountaineers from running the table in the Sun Belt and gave Viator the much needed huge home win in the rebuilding process.
The season would end with three consecutive losses but that had more to do with the competition. The Warhawks were very competitive in losses to Auburn and Arkansas State before ending the season with a blowout loss to Florida State. There were some ugly marks, but there were definitive things for this program to build on.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the entire conference was the emergence of Caleb Evans. The Texas native was outstanding this season as he became one of the most feared offensive players in the Sun Belt. For the season, the true sophomore put up some really gaudy stats. Evans was responsible for 30 touchdowns, averaged over eight yards per pass attempt, and ran for 579 yards. He thrived in offensive coordinator Matt Kubik’s system and he should compete with Arkansas State’s Justice Hansen for preseason honors for first team all-conference.
In their first year under defensive coordinator Mike Collins, the Warhawks gave up 39.1 points per game as S&P+ ranked them as the nation’s 126th best defense. With most of that unit returning, the thought was that this group had nowhere to go but up.
That ended up being wrong as ULM finished the season 129th per S&P+. Opponents averaged over 40 points per game against ULM as the defense allowed over seven yards per play. This was the biggest weakness of the football team as the Warhawks lost two games in which they scored at least 37 points.
Moving forward, ULM will get most of this group back in 2018 including a couple of freshmen defensive linemen Mason Husmann and Kerry Starks. If this unit can make a big jump the Warhawks will become a serious contender in the Sun Belt.
It’s clear that the rebuild for Matt Viator’s program is ahead of schedule as the Warhawks will enter year three as a part of the Sun Belt’s top half. The Warhawks have a bonafide star in Caleb Evans, plenty of weapons at receiver, and perhaps the most exciting offense in the Fun Belt.
The defense needs major work but there are plenty of pieces returning. There is legitimate firepower on the offensive side of the football and the Warhawks should be able to outscore about every team they face. The schedule is still brutal with two SEC road trips as well as Arkansas State in Jonesboro, but I like ULM’s chances to reach their second bowl game in program history in the fall of 2018.