2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: After an 8-5 record and their first-ever bowl bid in 2012, the ULM Warhawks came into last season as one of the favorites in the Sun Belt Conference, but they ultimately underperformed by finishing 6-6.
ULM emerged from its non-conference schedule just 2-3, which included a pair of blowout losses to Big 12 teams Oklahoma (34-0) and Baylor (70-7). The slow start carried over into the beginning of its league schedule, losing to Western Kentucky on Oct. 3 (31-10), but it rebounded with three straight wins over Texas State (21-14), Georgia State (38-10) and Troy (49-37).
The Warhawks' hopes for a league title were dashed in November, when they lost back-to-back contests to Arkansas State (42-14) and South Alabama (36-14). They pulled off a road upset over Louisiana on Nov. 30 (31-28) to finish 4-3 in the league and earn bowl eligibility for the second straight season, but they failed to secure a postseason invite.
OFFENSE: After an outstanding 2012 campaign (33.8 ppg), the offense took a major step backward last season by putting up a mere 22.2 ppg and 360.3 ypg.
With the departure of quarterback Kolton Browning (2,179 yards, 21 TDs, eight INTs), the keys to the offense have been handed over to Pete Thomas, a two- time transfer who previously played for NC State and Colorado State. Thomas was up-and-down in part-time work for the Wolfpack last season, completing 149-of-247 passes (.603) for 1,667 yards with four touchdowns at nine picks, although his head coach likes what he sees so far from his new signal caller in camp.
"He's very poised, and I think that shows significant maturity," ULM head coach Todd Berry said. "He's adapted well to the team, and they've really taken him in...He is everything I hoped that he would be in terms of coming in and being competitive."
Thomas hopes to strike up some chemistry with Rashon Ceaser, who was one of the conference's best wide receivers a season ago with 65 receptions for 964 yards and five touchdowns. Kenzee Jackson (24 receptions, 271 yards, two TDs) also returns to the receiving corps.
After working as part of a backfield-by-committee in 2013, Centarius Donald (433 yards, four TDs) will get a chance to serve as the feature tailback as a senior, running behind an offensive line that welcomes back three starters.
DEFENSE: ULM's defensive numbers last season were sub par (30.2 ppg, 426.8 ypg), which was a result of streaky play, as the unit allowed 30 points or more seven times yet held opponents under 20 points four times.
The unit anticipates growth in 2014 with eight starters back in the fold, led by its versatile middle linebacker Hunter Kissinger, who racked up 73 tackles, 6.5 TFL, three interceptions and a forced fumble last season. Ray Stovall (49 tackles, 11.0 TFL) is also an integral piece at linebacker.
Four of the five starting defensive backs return to the 3-3-5 scheme. Cordero Smith (63 tackles, INT, FF). Mitch Lane (53 tackles, two INTs) and Justin Backus (40 tackles, two INTs) all had a positive hand in the turnover battle, with Trey Caldwell (35 tackles) also gaining valuable experience in 2013.
Gerrand Johnson (56 tackles, 11.0 TFL) is a force at nose tackle, and Joey Gautney (6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) is back for his senior season after starting all 12 games a year ago.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Manton pulls double duty as both the kicker and punter. He was only 5-of-9 on field goal attempts in 2013 with a long of 38, and of his 80 punts, 28 went 50 yards or longer and 24 landed inside the 20-yard line.
Ceaser will run back punts once again after returning 12 for 126 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown. Tyler Cain is listed atop the depth chart as the kick returner.
OUTLOOK: After a disappointing showing last season, ULM's ascending star in the Sun Belt has begun to fade as it is ranked fifth in the league's preseason coaches' poll, but the head coach knows all too well that games are never won on paper.
"(Once) you start listening to other people, good or bad, you're going to have a major problem," Berry said. "You're either too down on yourself or too full of yourself. It's always good to be in that put-a-ball down mentality...They're going to put a ball down, and I'm going to play."
The Warhawks' success hinges heavily on the shoulders of Thomas, with hopes that their new QB can use his ACC and Mountain West experience to excel in a lesser conference. The squad should be able to take care of business against the league newcomers on their schedule (Idaho, Appalachian State, New Mexico State, Georgia Southern), but competing with conference favorites Louisiana and Arkansas State will be difficult. Tack on a brutal non-conference slate (versus Wake Forest, at LSU, at Kentucky, at Texas A&M), and another season hovering around .500 seems imminent.