After going just 2-11 last season, ULM dismissed Todd Berry and hired McNeese State head coach Matt Viator from the FCS ranks. The Warhawks return plenty of experience on offense, but it was one of the nation's least productive units, while the defense will be undergoing a complete overhaul. It likely will be another tough season in Monroe, La.
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Previewing ULM's Offense for 2016
New coach Matt Viator inherits an offense with seven returning starters, but they accomplished little last season. The Warhawks ranked last in the Sun Belt in scoring (21.0 ppg), total offense (310.8 ypg) and turnovers committed (30).
There are at least some building blocks for a quality passing attack. Quarterback Garrett Smith passed for 2,033 yards, 17 TDs and 11 interceptions last season, and he gets back his top two receivers in Marcus Green (63 receptions, 698 yards) and Ajalen Holley (60 for 709). ULM will utilize heavier tight end sets to expand the passing attack and bolster the ground game. Tight end Alec Osborne should be a weapon after missing the 2015 season due to injury.
The team’s top two rushers return in Ben Luckett (509 yards) and Kaylon Watson (336), and Smith is also a running threat. But all-purpose speedster Tyler Cain, who missed last season with an injury, will move to starting running back to spice up a ground game that was held under 100 yards rushing seven times last season. Viator had strong rushing attacks at McNeese State, so that should be a priority in year one at ULM.
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Previewing ULM’s Defense for 2016
Mike Collins, a former ULM player, defensive coordinator and 2002 interim head coach, returns to Monroe as the defensive coordinator. He has changed the scheme from a 3-3-5 to a 4-2-5, which still takes advantage of an experienced secondary. Safeties Tre’ Hunter, Wesley Thompson and Roland Jenkins, along with cornerbacks Lenzy Pipkins, Marcus Hubbard and Aaron Townsend, give ULM talent and depth on the back end.
But there are big question marks otherwise, as the entire front six must be replaced. ULM took a big hit when playmaking defensive end Ben Banogu (team-high 14.5 tackles for a loss) transferred to TCU. In his absence, Caleb Tucker could be an X-factor. The former Houston transfer was disruptive in short stints last season, and he will be key as an undersized, athletic defensive end. Other former backups also will have to come of age if ULM is to grow any teeth in its run defense or pass rush. For example, sophomore Shaquille Warren steps into a starting role on the line after making only one tackle last season.
If the youngsters can make an impact up front, it could free up the veteran secondary to make plays. If they can’t, then there will be some major growing pains for the rebuilt defense.
Previewing ULM's Specialists for 2016
Craig Ford made 9-of-14 field goals in his freshman season, and he is the obvious choice at placekicker. Freshman walk-on Alex Prince is likely the best option at punter. Green is an experienced kick returner.
Viator isn’t used to losing. With a 78–33 record over 10 years at McNeese State, he remains the only coach in Southland Conference history with at least eight years on the job to never have a losing season. But in traveling 200 miles north, Viator takes over a ULM program coming off a 2–11 record, its worst record since 2003. To make it work in Year 1, he must tweak the offense in the right way, find some defensive playmakers quickly and hit a couple of home runs with his first recruiting class.
To make the task even tougher, ULM has only five home games, plus daunting road trips to Oklahoma and Auburn in the first month of the season. The combination of a new coaching staff and unproven players says this could be a late-blooming team. If so, there will be only two home games in the second half of the season to show that progress. If Viator can pull off a .500 record in his debut season, he’ll be a Sun Belt Coach of the Year candidate.