Matt Viator took a 2-11 team and doubled ULM’s win total in his first season as the Warhawks' head coach. There’s still plenty of room for more improvement, however, starting with a defense that ranked near the bottom of the FBS in yards, rushing yards and points allowed per game. If ULM can tighten things up on defense, find some consistency on offense and take better care of the football, then the Warhawks have a chance to be better. However, that’s a lot of ifs for a relatively inexperienced team full of unproven options that also has to navigate a schedule that includes 10 straight games without a break.
Previewing ULM Football’s Offense for 2017
ULM had too many moving parts last season. There were three different starting quarterbacks, four starting running backs and eight starting wide receivers. The good news is that 10 of those 15 starters at skill positions are back. The bad news is that they still carry several concerns about inconsistency.
The Warhawks rushed for 181.3 yards per game, third best in the Sun Belt. Both an experienced offensive line and a crowded backfield return. Ben Luckett, Thomas Koufie, Austin Vaughn and Duke Carter each posted 100-yard rushing games, but none reached 500 yards for the season. Finding a primary ball carrier could help the offense’s stability.
Quarterback Garrett Smith, a two-year starter, is the frontrunner in a three-man race after missing the second half of last season with an injury. He must stay healthy and limit ULM’s unforced errors — the team had the second-most turnovers in the Sun Belt in 2016.
At wide receiver, Marcus Green is somewhat consistent, and Xavier Brown and RJ Turner have big-play potential. But the passing attack must improve to complement a ground game that carries some optimism.
Previewing ULM Football’s Defense for 2017
Just as much experience returns on defense, but the concerns are greater. Eight positions tout a player with at least six starts last season, but that unit was among the worst in FBS in rushing defense (260.3 ypg), total defense (480.3 ypg) and scoring defense (39.1 ppg). To improve on those numbers, the Warhawks need their veterans to come of age and the defense to better adapt to the 4-2-5 scheme, which was implemented last season.
There are strong points in the front seven, but the group struggled mightily to stop the run last season. Senior Caleb Tucker is a havoc-wreaking defensive end up front. David Griffith is the leader of the linebackers after posting a team-high 78 tackles, including 12 for a loss. And he’s flanked by fellow linebackers Chase Day (70 tackles) and Cortez Sisco (60), both very productive as freshmen last season.
There is some experience in the secondary. But the pass defense made few big plays last season and struggled only slightly less than the rush defense.
Previewing ULM Football’s Specialists for 2017
Craig Ford was a perfect 7-of-7 on field goals of 40 yards or less, and he still has good range beyond that. Alex Prince should take over the punting duties. Markis McCray and Green are a solid kick return duo, as each had a return of at least 50 yards in 2016.
Coach Matt Viator inherited a 2–11 ULM team and made it somewhat respectable in Year 1 with a 4–8 record and one of the least penalized teams in the country. But it was also his first losing record in 11 seasons as a head coach after previously guiding McNeese State to a spot among the elite in FCS. ULM’s road to a better record is clear. It must cut down on turnovers and win the line of scrimmage.
Only six teams had a worse turnover margin than ULM last season at minus-11, and those miscues were a big factor in the Warhawks’ 1–6 road record. Viator is trying to build a deep power-rushing attack like the ones he had at McNeese State, but he has bigger problems on defense trying to stop the run. Developing a physical style will require time and recruiting, and keeping Smith healthy should accelerate the offense’s growth.
ULM’s schedule includes only five home games, no bye week until November and non-conference road trips to Florida State, Auburn and Memphis. Even if the Warhawks are improved in Viator’s second season, the record may not show it.
National Ranking: 119
Sun Belt Prediction: 8
(Garrett Smith photo courtesy of Getty Images)