The 2012 Warhawks finished 8-5 behind the outstanding play of quarterback Kolton Browning, who was one of the surprise players in all of college football last season. With Browning’s return, as well as the return of several key players, Todd Berry’s team has the pieces in place to be bowl-bound once again in 2013.
There’s no doubt the Warhawks will go as Kolton Browning goes. The 2012 Sun Belt Player of the Year threw for 3.049 yards and 29 touchdowns, adding 488 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, and has the potential to break all-time Sun Belt records for both passing yardage and rushing yardage for quarterbacks this season.
There are some health concerns surrounding Browning, but a sturdier frame (he’s gained 20 pounds so far since the season) and an experienced offensive line which has tallied 87 career starts between them should help keep him upright. The Warhawks will be far from one-dimensional however, as senior Jyruss Edwards leads a ground game which has the ability to inject some balance into the offense to mix things up and keep defenses honest.
Browning’s three top wideouts, Je’Ron Hamm, Tavarese Maye and Colby Harper return to the fold in 2013. The trio accounted for 147 catches, 1,830 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns between them in 2012. They will have to make up for the loss of last year’s most productive wideout Brent Leonard (104/1,118/10 in 2012) but should be able to do so with expanded roles.
Projected starting tight end Harley Scioneaux is the only member of the offensive unit that isn’t at least a junior. This alone speaks volumes of the level of experience which the Warhawks will benefit from this fall and that is so rare of Sun Belt programs that tend to be in a constant state of flux.
The Warhawks defense will finally be healthy in 2013, and given this should be able to realize their potential as a unit. Some upgrades are needed when it comes to a pass rush and run stopping that both struggled in 2012, but with the return of three key players lost to injury last season — defensive lineman Kentarius Caldwell, linebacker Cameron Blakes, and defensive back Mitch Lane — there should be instant improvement.
The Warhawks’ base 3-3-5 defensive set is tailored to allow plays to occur in space and then use the team speed to keep short plays from turning into explosive plays. This is where Blakes — and a core of new linebackers — must be consistent in pursuit and aid a defensive line heavy in experience to make plays with consistency, both in the running and passing game.
As long as Louisiana-Monroe can stay healthy and slow opposing running attacks down more often (they gave up 200+ yards in rushing in four of five losses last season) the defense should be just productive enough to allow a high-flying offense to do what it does and not be pressured to perform beyond expectations.
The Warhawks dive straight into the 2013 season head-first with a Saturday, August 31st tilt against the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman. While there’s little chance to escape with a victory here, being competitive will be of paramount importance to set the tone for the rest of the pre-season.
A week two matchup with the Grambling Tigers in Monroe should be an easy win prior to consecutive road trips to Winston-Salem to take on the Rant Sports No. 87 Wake Forest Demon Deacons and to Waco for a rematch of 2012′s classic with the high-flying Baylor Bears.
The non-conference slate wraps up on September 28th as the Warhawks face the lowly Tulane Green Wave in Monroe. Games against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in early October and the Rant Sports No. 85 Arkansas State Red Wolves in early November, along with how they far in non-conference play, will tell the tale of whether a return bowl trip is in the cards in 2012.
Our bet is that it is. I never bet against a team with this level of experience. Another above .500 season is on its way in Monroe.
Count on it.