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2021 ULM Warhawks Season Preview

The Bowden era has begun in Monroe; what will the first season look like?

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

It can’t get worse than last year, right?

The ULM Warhawks went 0-10 in 2020, the worst record in the program’s 90-year history. They were lowest in the Sun Belt for almost every team statistic, including points scored and points allowed.

New coaching regime, shiny transfer quarterback, and three All-Sun Belt honorable mentions on defense… it can only go up, right?


Preseason Expectations

No one expects ULM to take a drastic step forward this season. In fact, it’s tough to predict it’ll take any step forward.

The Warhawks will steal a game or two. Three would be a happy surprise. Four and Monroe will look like Philadelphia after a Super Bowl win.

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Army
ULM QB Colby Suits
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Schedule

at Kentucky 9/4
vs Jackson State 9/18
vs Troy 9/25
at Coastal Carolina 10/2
vs Georgia State 10/9
vs Liberty 10/16
vs South Alabama 10/23
at Appalachian State 10/30
at Texas State 11/6
vs Arkansas State 11/13
at Louisiana State 11/20
at Louisiana 11/27


Coaching Changes

ULM cleared house and hired a new big three.

Terry Bowden leads the charge in his first head coaching gig since 2018. Bowden, son of the late Bobby Bowden, was successful in his prime but has since fallen off. His Auburn teams of the mid-90’s went 47-17-1 in the midst of NCAA recruiting and scholarship sanctions. Bowden resigned in the middle of the ’98 season after a 1-5 start and didn’t return to coaching until 2009. He spent the years in between as an analyst and commentator for ABC.

Bowden’s most recent job was with the Akron Zips of the Mid American Conference. During his time there, the Zips went 35-52 and had just one winning season.

Joining Bowden’s staff are OC Rich Rodriguez and DC Zac Alley.

Rodriguez gained national notoriety as West Virginia’s head coach. During his seven years there, the Mountaineers went 60-26 and won the Big East four times. He then went on to a controversial stint at Michigan, where he oversaw the ending of what was the longest active bowl game steak in the NCAA while in Ann Arbor. Rodriguez left Wolverines after three disappointing seasons and several alleged NCAA infractions.

Most recently, Rodriguez did a year-long stint as the OC at Ole Miss as part of an attempt to save HC Matt Luke’s job. Luke was fired in December 2019 and Rodriguez was not asked to rejoin the staff.

Alley has spent his fledgling career as a positional coach for at all levels. He is 27 and the youngest defensive coordinator in the FBS. Alley most recently worked as an inside linebackers coach with Boise State. The Bronco’s posted many impressive accolades including finishing 15th in FBS rushing defense in 2019. Alley has also worked with Clemson and the Carolina Panthers.


Offense Overview

Quarterback

Last season the offense ran through Colby Suits. Suits, a 6’3”, 240 pound mountain of a man, passed for 1,541 yards and eight touchdowns. He shared the workload with Jeremy Hunt, who threw for half as many yards on half as many attempts, but also accounted for six touchdowns.

Unfortunately for Suits and Hunt, neither fit OC Rich Rodriguez’s scheme. Rodriguez prefers a rushing QB; when West Virginia went 11-1 in 2005, the Mountaineers second-leading rusher was their quarterback.

Arizona transfer Rhett Rodriguez is the likely week one starter. Rhett, son of Rich, threw just 100 passes over four years in Arizona but practiced and played in the Wildcats’ read option offense.

Running Back

As a team always playing catch-up in 2020, the Warhawks were rarely in a position to run the ball. ULM rushed for 1,004 yards last season.

Leading rusher Josh Johnson (353 yards on 88 attempts) went pro this offseason and second-place was Colby Suits who, as mentioned previously, will lose his starting job to Rodriguez. That leaves 123 rushing attempts to be accounted for.

During the spring, Kadyn Roach and Isaiah Phillips impressed as the potential cowbells. Phillips was fourth in touches last season, but that equated to just 34 carries. Roach rushed for an impressive 6.2 yards per carry, but that number should be viewed with caution due to having just 18 attempts.

Wide Receiver

The Warhawks did a great job spreading the love in the passing game last season. Eight different receivers had over 100 yards. Three of those eight, Josh Pederson, Jah Bloomfield, and Perry Carter Jr, surpassed the 300-yard mark. Whether this ‘sharing is caring’ approach was intentional or due to the blatant lack of a star receiver is unknown.

Pederson is now an NFL free agent, so Bloomfield and Carter Jr. will be asked to be the top threats in the passing game. Whether they can amass more than 300 yards is unclear, given the expected philosophy shift with Rodriguez running the offense.

The Warhawks also added Dariyan Wiley and Jared Sparks from the transfer portal; the two have combined for 15 receptions over the past two seasons.

Offensive Line

The Warhawks rushed for a combined 1,004 yards and their QBs were sacked 27 times. What is there to say about the offensive line that the stats don’t already describe, unfortunately?


Defense Overview

Defensive Line

Like their offensive counterpart, the defensive trenches were a tough sight for the 2020 Warhawks.

Ty Shelby was one of three defensive All-Sun Belt honorable mentions from ULM last season, and he is the anchor for the Warhawk D-line. He led the defensive line in combined sacks and tackles for loss with just 8.5. Shelby was also one of just three players to record two or more sacks last season.

Linebackers

While the rest of the team offers very little in terms of potential stars, the linebacking duo is genuinely a threat.

Traveion Webster led the team in total tackles in 2020 and was on the field for more than double as many snaps as the next highest defensive player. Webster, like DE Ty Shelby, was one of the few Warhawks to receive All-Sun Belt recognition in 2020.

Alongside Webster will likely be Ja’Cquez Williams. Williams joined via the transfer portal this offseason from Wake Forest. He was solid during his four years with the Deacons; last season he recorded two sacks and 73 tackles.

While unconfirmed, Williams and Webster may be the only guys on the second level for ULM. The Warhawks ran a 4-2-5 nickel defense last season, and it was in that nickel linebacker role that Webster succeeded. First-year DC Zac Alley has historically worked in a nickel defense— he was the nickelback coach at Charlotte— and has worked as a linebackers coach, so he’ll be looking to make that part of the defense shine.

Defensive backs

Opposing quarterbacks were able to slice apart the ULM pass defense in 2020. The per game numbers aren’t terrible— only 215.3 air yards allowed— but that is due to situation. ULM opponents were always up, so they never needed to pass the ball. But when they did, they did so with force. Each opposing pass attempt averaged 9.92 yards.

Despite running a nickel package last season, and likely again in 2021, there is no stud defensive back on the roster. Safety Austin Hawley is the closest they’ve got; he was an All-Sun Belt honorable mention in 2020.

Other important names in the secondary are Josh Newton and Adam Sparks. Newton is a true sophomore, the youngest of the group, and Sparks transferred in from Missouri.


Specialists

Over the past two seasons the Warhawks have made just 11 field goals and have missed 10 PATs.

Calum Sutherland is a senior transfer from Oklahoma hoping to resolve that issue. His only career kicks came in 2019, when he went 2-4 on field goals but made all 23 of his attempted PATs.

Redshirt freshman Kip Warren is the only punter listed on the ULM roster; he has not made an NCAA appearance.


Important Games

vs Jackson State 9/18
The only winnable out-of-conference matchup. JSU is no scrub of an FCS team and Coach Deion Sanders still needs his first win against an FBS opponent.

vs South Alabama 10/23
Hosting one of the few other atrocious Sun Belt teams is a huge advantage. It would be a slight upset, but the Warhawks are gong to want to win this one after likely being trampled by Liberty.


Keys to Success

Don’t let your head down
This is going to be a very mentally draining season. Regardless, put on a show that draws in potential recruits and transfers to build the program up.

Don’t let Rhett play daddy ball
Rhett Rodriguez is the starting QB for week one. But how long he keeps the job is still in question. Colby Suits and Jeremy Hunt might earn the job later down the line; Bowden needs to ensure he gives those guys a shot when they earn it.

Schedule an easier 2022
Kentucky, Jackson State, Liberty, LSU? Seriously? That’s the non-conference y’all really wanted? No shame in building up to the tougher opponents.