2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: After going 5-7 in his first season as the head coach of the ULM Warhawks in 2010, Todd Berry's team endured a small step backward in 2011.
The Warhawks' season got off to a 1-3 start, but that was almost expected considering their schedule as they lost three tough road games in September to Florida State (34-0), TCU (38-17) and Iowa (45-17). Their lone win during that stretch came against Grambling State (35-7).
ULM thought that things would get easier once it entered conference play, but that was not the case as it finished just 3-5 in the Sun Belt, with its three wins coming to the three teams that finished below it in the standings (Troy, Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic).
The Warhawks finished the season with a 4-8 record, and they still have not been bowl-eligible in their six years since joining the FBS.
OFFENSE: The Warhawks were one of the more effective offensive teams in the Sun Belt a season ago, ranking third in the conference in yards per game (390.6) and fifth in scoring (24.6).
The unit is fortunate enough to welcome back most of its offensive nucleus from a year ago, led by quarterback Kolton Browning. Though he was effective in completing 58.2 percent of his passes for 2,483 yards, 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, it marked a noticeable downtick in production from his freshman season (.619 percent completions, 18 TDs). Though Browning is also a threat running the ball (443 yards, 5 TDs), his production from the pocket will need to increase if the Warhawks hope to improve.
The return of one of the Sun Belt's most dynamic receiving duos can only help Browning's progress. Brent Leonard is one of the SBC's best, hauling in 69 passes for 751 yards and 4 touchdowns a year ago, while Tavarese Maye complemented Leonard nicely with 50 catches, 617 yards and 3 scores. Colby Harper (291 yards) and Je'Ron Hamm (257 yards) are also back in the mix.
Jyruss Edwards was the team's leading rusher last season with 667 yards and he was especially effective in the red zone with 11 touchdowns. With Edwards back, paired with the production from Browning and Centarius Donald (414 yards, 3 TDs), the running game should once again be in good shape, although the loss of three offensive linemen could be cause for concern.
DEFENSE: Despite their sub par record, ULM had a solid defense, allowing just 326.2 yards per game, second only to Arkansas State in the Sun Belt and ranking 22nd in the nation. Even though the unit didn't surrender many yards, it was susceptible to allowing points (25.4 ppg). It was also wildly inconsistent in yielding 14 points or fewer four times while giving up 31 points or more on six occasions.
The defensive line was a strength a year ago, but with Ken Dorsey (13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) and Troy Evans (12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) gone, tackle Kentarius Caldwell (6 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) is the most experienced in the current rotation.
Even with the loss of 100-tackle man Jason Edwards, linebacker appears to be the strength of the unit with Cameron Blakes (50 tackles, 7 tackles for loss) and R.J. Young (45 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) returning after productive season. Coach Berry is especially excited about Blakes prospects this season.
"(Blakes) is a four-year starting linebacker and NFL scouts are taking note of him," Berry said. "He is a key guy for us."
The secondary returns veteran performers who are key to the turnover battle in cornerback Vincent Eddie (63 tackles, 2 interceptions) and safety Isaiah Newsome (62 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Justin Manton struggled last season, hitting just 6- of-14 field goal attempts, although he's shown a strong leg. Freshman Caleb Gammel takes over as the team's punter.
Return specialist Luther Ambrose has moved on, and while Edwards saw some time returning kicks last season, expect a few different guys to get an opportunity this fall.
OUTLOOK: With good numbers on both the offensive and defensive sides of the football, ULM's struggles in 2011 were hard to explain at times, with much of its fate coming down to streaky play. Berry feels that the continuity on the squad will lead to improvement this season.
"I really like the chemistry of the team we have this season," Berry said. "The best thing about this team is the culture we have. The players have grown up together and when you have a culture like the one we have, it allows you work through adversity similar to what we encountered last season. The team could have chosen to take a step back or a step forward and I feel that this team has taken a step forward."
With all of its top skill players returning, the offense should be improved this year, and even though the defense lost plenty of key performers, the system in place has proven to be effective, so the production on that side of the ball should be there as well. The key for the Warhawks is being able to step up in big moments against Sun Belt foes, and if they are able to do that better than last year, they could start creeping towards bowl eligibility.