Todd Berry and the Warhawks have eight starters back on a veteran defense and five starters back on a questionable offense. The team should be more balanced in 2015 and with 13 games (including Hawaii), ULM could find itself in the postseason. Contending for a Sun Belt title, however, may be a much taller order.
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Previewing ULM's Offense for 2015
ULM will try to reboot its offense with head coach Todd Berry taking over play-calling duties after a lopsided performance in 2014: The Warhawks led the Sun Belt in passing but ranked dead last in rushing, total offense and scoring.
Stability at quarterback is needed. Senior Brayle Brown has some experience (29 games, two starts) and a deep understanding of the scheme, but he is also injury-prone. Redshirt freshman Garrett Smith is rougher around the edges for now, but he touts an upside as a dual-threat quarterback.
Don’t be surprised if the competition stretches into the season, but the starter will be able to lean heavily on wideouts Rashon Ceaser and Ajalen Holley, the most productive returning receiver duo in the conference (134 receptions, 1,735 yards in 2014).
Sophomore Kaylon Watson and senior DeVontae McNeal, who missed last season with an injury, will share time at running back. It’s an inexperienced pair with only 57 career rushing attempts combined. Neither the ground game nor the new quarterback will be effective if ULM doesn’t answer lingering questions on the offensive line.
“We didn’t play well up front last year, just static and not productive, and we still have some challenges there,” Berry says. “So that quarterback has to have the ability of doing some special things and handle the tempo to help our offensive line.”
Previewing ULM’s Defense for 2015
Six of ULM’s top seven tacklers from last season return to a unit that should come of age in 2015. And there are no discernible weak spots.
Nose tackle Gerrand Johnson, the first defensive lineman to lead ULM in tackles since 1980, will man the interior of the front. At linebacker, Hunter Kissinger was a first-team all-league performer last season, and Michael Johnson is the Sun Belt’s returning sack leader. Mitch Lane, another first-team All-Sun Belt selection, leads the secondary at the Hawk position of ULM’s 3-3-5 scheme.
“This is a senior-laden group that’s been in a lot of ball games,” Berry says. “Our linebacking corps is as good as any I’ve been around in a long time.”
The defense more than doubled its sack total over the last two seasons, and expect another increase in pressure with an athletic, experienced group coming back.
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Previewing ULM's Specialists for 2015
The graduation of Justin Manton, an all-conference kicker and punter, leaves a large vacancy. Redshirt freshman Craig Ford will take over placekicking duties, while true freshman Chris Qualls will battle Ford at punter. Ceaser’s 9.5-yard average on punt returns would have led the Sun Belt had he had enough attempts to qualify. Speedster Tyler Cain is also back to return kicks.
An NCAA scheduling exemption allows ULM to play a 13-game schedule because it involves a trip to Hawaii. That could increase the Warhawks’ bowl possibilities, but only if the veteran group weathers non-conference contests at Georgia and Alabama and 10 straight games without a bye week.
ULM has only five home games, but Berry’s teams have overcome the school’s scheduling challenges before with 6–6 and 8–5 seasons during the past three years. The Warhawks’ final five losses last season were each by seven points or fewer, and the same slim margin should be there again.
Expect ULM’s defense to be among the Sun Belt’s best, but the team will go only as far as the offense and a new starting quarterback can take it. Berry is an imaginative offensive coach with a knack for getting the best out of his quarterbacks, and his expertise will be tested in 2015.