By program standards, the ULM Warhawks started off the 2017 season red-hot. They opened at 3-2, winning three straight conference games before going 1-4 in their final Sun Belt contests, and 0-2 outside of league play. That wrapped up the season at 4-8, which on its face would be a cause for disappointment.
But the ULM faithful did not walk out of 2017 with anything other than optimism and hope. When head coach Matt Viator took over in 2016, he did so inheriting a 2-11 program with a discouraged and uninterested fan base. In his first season in Monroe, Viator led one of the nation’s most inexperienced teams to an improved 4-8 record, officially getting the rebuild underway.
As I mentioned, the team followed up with another 4-8 finish in 2017, but fans walked away with a much different perspective than at the end of 2016. This time, not only was the rebuild in progress, but we got glimpses of the finished project. With three straight conference wins, a win over conference powerhouse Appalachian State, and an offense that led the league in scoring, we got our first look of what this program could look like under Matt Viator.
With more preseason hype than we have ever seen, let’s breaks down the Warhawks and take a look at their schedule for 2018.
With a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, a deep stable of running backs, and an explosive group of receivers, Matt Viator and offensive coordinator Matt Kubik have everything they could ever ask for. Oh, and that doesn’t include the 73 combined starts the ULM offensive line brings to the table.
The face of the offense is junior quarterback Caleb Evans, who threw for 2,868 yards and 17 touchdowns to go along with 579 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. That puts him at 3,447 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns. All that from a guy who didn’t even win the full-time starting job until the third game of the season.
In the backfield, the Warhawks don’t possess a game-changing, workhorse back, but rather have a deep rotation of guys who can contribute solid production. The obvious name here is Derrick Gore, who transferred from Alabama and led the team in rushing last season with 615 yards and six touchdowns. With another offseason under his belt, we very well could see Gore receive an increased workload and put up bigger numbers. Another intriguing name is Josh Johnson, who joins the Warhawks as a former Ole Miss commit.
At wide receiver, Marcus Green and RJ Turner return to lead a group that only lost one guy in Brian Williams. This group is arguably the deepest and most talented group in the Sun Belt Conference, and with two go-to guys at the top of the depth chart, Caleb Evans has a lot to work with.
On the offensive line, left guard Frank Sutton is the only Warhawk starter not returning in 2018. This is a veteran offensive line that has shown it can consistently produce, even through the loss of an offensive line coach before last year, With experience, talent, and depth, the offensive line will certainly be a strength for this offense.
Defensively, I’m not nearly as confident. The Warhawks had the league’s highest-scoring offense in 2017 and still finished 4-8. The natural reaction is to point a finger at the defense, and with 41 points allowed per game, pointing that finger is certainly justified. This unit gave up 532 yards per contest, essentially landing the team in a shootout every week.
But going into 2018, there are reasons to be optimistic. First off, the team is returning eight starters and bringing back 12 of its top 15 tacklers. We are also entering the third year of this staff’s tenure, which is usually the time it takes for everyone to get on the same page and start firing on all cylinders.
Let’s first address the glaring weakness of 2017’s defense: the secondary. Now, a big reason why ULM’s defensive backs struggled is the onslaught of injuries this unit had to deal with. Going into the new season, they will be healthy, but will also lose free safety Roland Jenkins, who led the team in tackles, as well as starting cornerback Juwan Offray. Matt Viator and defensive coordinator Mike Collins did a good job of aggressively recruiting defensive backs from the JUCO level this offseason. If that move ends up paying off, this unit could feature a mix of talent and experience that will turn around a defense that was among the worst in the country against the pass.
At linebacker, the Warhawks return their top two tacklers in David Griffith and Chase Day. The defensive line returns three starters as well. Still, last season’s team allowed 233 rushing yards per game. The frontline will need to do a better job of shutting down rushing attacks and getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks as a secondary with a lot of new faces looks to find their footing.
The Warhawks open up 2018 with a cakewalk against Southeastern Louisiana but get an early test Week 2 on the road against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Southern Miss has been one of the better teams in Conference USA for the last couple of years. They’ve done so based on depth and experience, but going into this season, the Golden Eagles will go from one of America’s most experienced teams to the back end of Phil Steel’s rankings. This game will certainly be a test, but this is a very winnable game, especially considering the fact that Southern Miss’ projected starting quarterback Kwadra Griggs is suspended indefinitely.
Week 3 takes the Warhawks to College Station to play the Texas A&M Aggies, and in all likelihood, this is a loss. But if ULM competes and doesn’t let A&M run away with it, we could see what this team is really made of. ULM opens conference play Week 4 at home against a Troy team coming off one of their best seasons in program history. The Trojans are not as experienced as they were heading into last season, but with the roster Neal Brown has built, this one will certainly be a tough contest. The Warhawks will have a very real shot at walking out victorious, but Troy is the likely favorite.
Road conference play kicks off with a Week 5 trip to Georgia State. The Panthers are another team coming off of a good year while losing much of their experience. State loses starting quarterback Connor Manning. With just five starters back on a defense that performed at an average rate and inexperience at quarterback, I like ULM to pick up the early season victory.
Week 6 at Ole Miss is likely a loss, but we’ve seen Sun Belt teams upset SEC schools before. With a lot of question marks on the roster and a first-year head coach, informed fans would certainly not be shocked to see the Warhawks steal a huge win in Oxford.
Week 7 against Coastal Carolina may be tough, simply because ULM goes on the road and faces a team coming off of a bye. The Chanticleers did not impress at 3-9, but expect this one to be competitive.
Week 8 at home against Texas State should be an easy win. The Bobcats return a decent amount of experience, but with Everett Withers’ team coming off of a 2-10 season, I won’t believe there’s improvement until I see it. After a bye the Warhawks host the Georgia Southern Eagles, who after a couple of tough losing seasons will return to their well-known option style of play. The Eagles went 2-10 last season, but with an outside perspective, I’m honestly not too sure what to expect. I give ULM the advantage, but with Southern going back to what they do well, this could be a dangerous team if head coach Chad Lunsford is able to light a fire under this offense.
On the road against South Alabama and Arkansas State are next up for the Hawks, who at this point are likely looking at anywhere from a 5-4 to a 7-2 record. With a fairly strong schedule to this point, I expect ULM to fall in at least one of these road games, as both are quality programs.
Regular season and conference play wrap up with a home matchup with the in-state rival Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. Bill Napier is in his first year as head coach and only inherits 11 returning starters, with his defense bringing back just three. This defense will not be able to slow down ULM’s dynamic attack, and even if the ULL offense is able to do damage against the Warhawks defense, I still see ULM walking away with a win.
The 2018 season will show us just how well of a job Matt Viator has done since taking over the program. If ULM falls on its face, there will be a lot of question going forward on whether or not he’s the guy to get this program to greater things. But in all honesty, there’s really no way I see this team failing this fall. There is far too much talent, depth, and experience on this roster to not contend for a conference title.
There’s not much notable history with this program, but 2018’s team will begin to write that chapter of the book. National awards, a conference title, and a second-ever bowl appearance are on the horizon for this team. ULM football is back, and we are all in for a show at Malone Stadium this fall.