A year after taking college football by storm, the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks suffered a step back in 2013. They struggled to points on the board, finishing as the No. 102 team in the country in scoring offense, and muddled their way to a 6-6 finish. Despite technically being bowl eligible with six wins, they were one of four 6-6 teams from the Sun Belt Conference to go without a bowl bid last season.
This year, there are major concerns about the state of the Warhawks. Kolton Browning, who had done everything for ULM over the last two years it seemed, has graduated leaving a major playmaking hole on the offensive side of the ball. Can Louisiana-Monroe move past the Browning era and get back to their exciting brand of “Sun Beast” football in 2014?
If they hope to bounce back, the first thing they have to do is find a new quarterback to replace Browning. Junior Brayle Brown is the only other quarterback on the roster who attempted a pass last season but he struggled in two starts in relief of an injured Browning. Against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Texas State Bobcats, Brown completed just 51.4 percent of his passes for 387 yards with no touchdowns and three interception.
He finished the year completing 52.1 percent of his passes for 645 yards with one touchdown and six interceptions. That leaves a lot of room for improvement this offseason in addition to the loss of athleticism from the quarterback position. Last season, Brown rushed for just 53 yards on 23 attempts while Browning accounted for 229 yards on the ground as the team’s third-leading rusher.
Luckily for ULM, however, the running game won’t be counting on the quarterback as much in 2014. Senior Centarius Donald leads the way after finishing No. 2 on the team in rushing last season when he gained 433 yards on 87 attempts with a team-high four touchdowns. Spelling Donald this season will be the explosive sophomore DeVontae Neal who averaged 7.07 yards per carry last season as he racked up 205 yards on 29 attempts with a pair of touchdowns.
At receiver, the Warhawks welcome back plenty of experienced talent who have a nose for finding the endzone. Rashon Ceaser led the team in receiving in 2013, catching 65 passes for 964 yards with five touchdowns, and will be the leader of the group again as a junior. Sophomore Ajalen Holley showed flashes of excellence as a freshman last season, catching 21 passes for 266 yards and five touchdowns. Rounding out the group will be tight end Harley Scioneaux who was a deadly red-zone target in 2013, catching four touchdowns.
Defensively, the Warhawks look to build off some solid continuity with plenty of returning talent. The defensive line was young in 2013 and come back with more experience this fall, led by the duo of junior Gerrand Johnson and Joey Gautney. Johnson led the team with 11 tackles for loss last season while Gautney is the team’s leading returning sack-man as the duo combined for 89 tackles last season.
At linebacker, ULM suffers its biggest loss with the graduation of 2013 leading tackler Cameron Blakes. The mantle of leadership for the group will have to shift to junior Hunter Kissinger, who was second on the team last season with 73 tackles to go along with 6.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and three interceptions. Senior Ray Stovall will also help fill the void as he looks to build on his 49 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and two sacks from a season ago.
The secondary will need to create some more negative plays in 2014 if the team hopes to improve, however. They’ll get to build off some solid 2013 campaigns from the likes of junior Trey Caldwell (three pass breakups) and sophomore Justin Backus (two interceptions, one pass breakup). The entire unit, however, has to do a better job of shutting down opposing passing attacks, especially with the graduation of Isaiah Newsome (four interceptions, two touchdowns).
ULM made a name for themselves in 2012 by going after some of the SEC‘s more prominent teams in non-conference play and playing them tough. The Warhawks will have that same opportunity in 2014 with road games against the LSU Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats, and Texas A&M Aggies. They round out their non-conference slate with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, giving them plenty of opportunities to score a marquee upset this fall.
The conference schedule will get a little easier, though, after the Sun Belt expanded with the addition of the Idaho Vandals, New Mexico State Aggies, and former FCS programs the Georgia Southern Eagles and Appalachian State Mountaineers. The Sun Belt’s addition of quantity, though not necessarily quality, should help bolster ULM’s win total in 2014.
But at the end of the day, the loss of Browning under center could be too much for the Warhawks to overcome. The quarterback situation does not instill a lot of confidence and without a strong trigger-man, the offense will not get off the ground in 2014. Look for the Warhawks to struggle this fall and win between four and six games, missing out on the bowl season yet again.