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ULM Warhawks ready to compete for Sun Belt title

The hype around ULM has never been higher, but can the Warhawks live up to expectations?

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in a long time, there is preseason hope around Malone Stadium and the city of Monroe, Louisiana. With several major media outlets projecting the Warhawks to finish in the top half of the Sunbelt’s West Division and many expecting a bowl appearance, the hype around ULM is very real. Season ticket sales have jumped as the fan base is extremely intrigued to see what this team can do after finishing 4-4 in Sun Belt play last season, an improvement from their 3-5 mark the previous season.

Preseason hype and increased expectations are fun and a great topic of conversation, but at the end of the day, the team still has to step out onto the field and prove they are worthy of such praise.

With the Sun Belt’s second-ranked offensive unit returning the vast majority of its production, you have to like their chances at living up to, or possibly exceeding those preseason marks. Starting quarterback Caleb Evans returns for his junior season after a sophomore campaign that saw him put up 3,451 total yards and 30 touchdowns, a feat that only one other player in ULM history has accomplished. With another year under his belt, we could see Evans put up even greater numbers as he enters his first season as an upperclassman.

Along with their star quarterback, the Warhawks also feature what may be the deepest receiving core in the conference. With Marcus Green (54 catches, 812 yards), R.J. Turner (38 catches, 693 yards), and Xavier Brown (21 catches, 228 yards) all returning for the 2018 season, Evans will have legitimate, proven weapons all over the field. Along with a top-level group of receivers, this offense also posses former Alabama transfer Derrick Gore who rushed for just under 600 yards last season.

The ULM offense averaged 34 points per game last season, and with the talent under center and at the skill positions, you have to like their chances to match that this season. Throw in the fact that this team returns four of its five starters on the offensive line, and you’re looking at an incredibly dangerous offensive unit.

While the offense is the driving force behind most of the expectations placed on this team, the Warhawks’ defense has a great opportunity to retool and rebuild itself going into the 2018 season. In 2017, we saw a secondary that teams had no problem picking apart through the air, often times leading to shootouts. In an attempt to shore up the back half of the defense, Matt Viator and his staff brought in JUCO corners and safeties to provide talent and depth for the secondary-heavy scheme which they utilize.

The new talent coming in is certainly still a question mark, but a more certain influx of talent comes from members of the secondary returning from injury. Three of ULM’s starting defensive backs, Luke Hedrick, Nick Ingram, and Collin Turner, missed much of the season due to injury, forcing defensive coordinator Mike Collins to mix-and-match his defensive unit to try to compensate for the loss of starters.

With a healthy secondary, players will move back to their natural positions and we should see a deeper unit as JUCO talent comes in. Depth, health, and versatility are critical for a scheme that features five defensive backs on the field, and it appears this team has all three.

There hasn’t been hype around the ULM football program in a very long time, but as we head into the 2018 season, the buzz around the Warhawks is certainly there. With an offense that looks to be the best in the conference and a defense that should be able to hold its own in the passing game, the expectations around this team are not only possible, but attainable. Not only do the Warhawks posses the tools to reach their second bowl game in team history, but this team could just find its way into the conference championship picture.