MONROE, La. – Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning might be the best offensive player in the Sun Belt Conference, and he has a team full of experience around him in 2013.
Coach Todd Berry, now in his fourth season, has had a chance to fully cultivate his first recruiting class and will be fielding a team loaded with seniors and juniors who've learned how to win together.
ULM won eight games last season, including a stunning upset at Arkansas, and earned a bid to the Independence Bowl. Now the Warhawks are co-favorites, along with in-state rivals Louisiana-Lafayette, to win the Sun Belt.
Berry said he would have been disappointed if his team wasn't considered a favorite, given both the season they had last year and the players they have coming back.
"This is the first time we have a senior-junior dominated team," Berry said. "There's no question that we built for this season."
Berry also has been enjoying the energy brought by last season's win total and bowl berth.
"Eight wins is not a great season, but for us it was a huge season because it was that season where you break down that barrier of: well, you can't have a winning season, and you can't beat a Top 10 team, and you can't win a big one on the road, and you can't do this, and you can't do that," Berry said. "Our fan base has been hearing that for years.
"All of a sudden there is the hope that you can do this."
Here are five things to watch at ULM this season:
1. BROWNING'S AIM: Browning will likely go down as ULM's all-time best QB by the time his senior season ends. He already holds the school record with 60 career TD passes and is less than 1,000 yards passing from setting the Warhawks' career mark in that category. After passing for more than 3,000 yards last year, he's been named the Sun Belt preseason offensive player of the year. He also has been named to watch lists for the Walter Camp Award, Davey O'Brien Quarterback Award, Maxwell Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and CFPA Offensive Awards. And there's another honor he wants. "This year, of course, I'm going to be shooting for the (Sun Belt) MVP," Browning said. "I'm just going to go out and do what I can control, and if at the end of the season I do get that award, then I'll be grateful for it."
2. RUNNERS RETURN: ULM is hoping for major contributions from two running backs who are returning from injuries. Jyruss Edwards rushed for 438 yards before missing the final five games with an upper body injury. Centarius Donald played in only four games last season, but hopes to return from torn knee ligaments by early this season.
3. CATCHING ON: Brent Leonard who led ULM with 104 catches for 1,118 yards and 10 TDs last season, is now trying to make it in the NFL. But ULM still has five receivers who played last season and will be eager to establish themselves as one of Browning's top targets.
4. BLOCKING BACK: No one on ULM's offensive line missed a game last season, which helped the offense remain productive despite injuries at some of the skill positions. Only one player from that group — right guard Jonathan Gill — has graduated.
5. DEFENSIVE REINFORCEMENTS: Linebacker Cameron Blakes returns after being granted a medical hardship for a lower body injury last season. Also returning to the defense from lower body injuries are nose tackle Kentarius Caldwell, who missed 8 games, and safety Mitch Lane, who missed six games.
Predicted finish in the Sun Belt: First (co-favorites)
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/