Opponent: University of Louisiana at Monroe Warhawks (ULM)
Time: 7 P.M.
Location: Malone Stadium (Capacity: 30,427)
Head Coach: Todd Berry (5th season; 23-26 overall)
Series History: ULM leads 1-0 (last meeting in 2013)
2013 Record: 6-6 (4-3 Sun Belt; no bowl)
In 2013, the ULM Warhawks came to Winston-Salem and knocked off the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in a closely contested 21-19 game which was not decided until Tanner Price's last second pass on a two-point conversion bounced off the hands of highly-touted receiver Michael Campanaro. The conversion attempt followed a frantic rally by the Deacs who drove 97 yards in 11 plays to put the ball in the end zone to provide an opportunity to knot the game and send it to overtime.
The Warhawks dominated a Wake Forest defense which would ultimately finish in the top 50 in the nation and converted on an astonishing 15 of 28 third down attempts. ULM was primarily led by senior quarterback Kolton Browning, who graduated last season, as Browning accounted for 315 passing yards and two touchdowns. Although the Warhawks lost Browning, a critical part of their offense in 2013, they will not hurt for experience in the 2014 campaign as they return nine of their top twelve receivers from last season, two of their top three rushers, and three of their five offensive starters. The biggest question ULM will have to answer on the offensive front is who will replace Kolton Browning, likely the best quarterback in ULM history.
Browning capped off his illustrious career as a Warhawk as a four-year starter with a 31-28 win over in-state rival ULL in the season finale. Despite the win, the Warhawks were not invited to a bowl game with a .500 record and so the important matchup against the Ragin' Cajuns ended up being ULM's postseason game. Browning graduated after amassing 81 touchdowns against only 38 interceptions over four years and passing for over 10,000 yards. Despite his impressive offensive acumen, the Warhawks encountered some troubles on both sides of the ball throughout the 2013 season and a year that started with a lot of excitement in Monroe ultimately ended without a postseason appearance.
If the Warhawks are going to find a level of success more akin to the 2012 campaign, when Berry led the squad to an eight-win season and the first bowl appearance in ULM's relatively short stint in the FBS devision, they will have to find a suitable replacement for Browning. Rising junior Brayle Brown is the only quarterback on the current roster who threw a pass last year, going 61 for 117 for six touchdowns. Brown got two starts in the middle of the season when Browning was out with a torn quadricep and went 1-1 in those two games, including a rough 31-10 beat down in Brown's first start of the season.
To potentially help mitigate the offensive questions provided by the lack of a proven quarterback, the Warhawks will perhaps look to supplement the offensive game plan with a more traditional rushing attack than Berry has employed over the previous few seasons with Browning at the helm. ULM returns three impressive running backs - most notably senior Centarius Donald who rushed 87 times last year for 433 yards and four touchdowns. He will be joined by backs DeVontae McNeal and Nathan Meadors who combined for 42 carries for 281 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Regardless of who takes over the passing position, they will have a cache of experienced receivers to try and get the ball to as Rashon Ceaser, Tony Cook, and Kenzee Jackson all return. Each of these three receivers garnered at least 40 targets in the pass-heavy attack and the only major loss from last season was one of Browning's favorite targets Tavarese Maye. Deacon fans may remember Ceaser and Maye from last season's game, where the two combined for 21 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. Additionally, rising sophomore Ajalen Holly returns after an impressive freshman year saw him 21 catches for 266 yards. Alongside Ceaser, expect Holly to be one of the major deep threats for Berry's aerial assault.
Similarly, the offensive line returns a healthy number of starters as three of the top five guys return up front, with a combined 79 starts under their belt. The bad news about the offensive line for the Warhawks is the dearth of any meaningful support from backups from 2013. With no injuries last season, ULM had the same starting five for every game which leaves a gap at the two positions where seniors graduated - center and left guard. Four-year starter at the center position, Josh Allen, graduated after accruing first-team All-Sun Belt accolades in 2013. Allen started 42 games over his four seasons and leaves a massive gap in the middle of the line. Jon Fisher, the left guard, also graduated taking his 26 starts of experience with him.
The first game of the year will likely shed some light onto what Coach Berry will try to do with this offensive outfit. Replacing Browning is a daunting task, but with the experience the offense has returning there is a legitimate opportunity for the Warhawks to slightly tweak a few things and remain competitive in the Sun Belt. Stated more succinctly by Bill Connolly, the Warhawks were effective at picking up solid gains but did not do so with a very high frequency - the number one thing the ULM offense has to be concerned about moving into the 2014 season along with establishing a more effective rush offense.
Head Coach Todd Berry enters his fifth season at the helm of the ULM football team. Berry inherited the team from Charlie Weatherbie following the 2009 season and after two seasons of sub-.500 football, produced an impressive eight-win season in 2012 leading to the Warhawks' first ever bowl appearance against Ohio. Despite the 45-14 loss in the bowl game, the 2012 season was inarguably ULM's best campaign at the FBS level. Even in a somewhat down year in 2013, the Warhawks snagged a tie for third in the Sun Belt and are expected to be one of the top two or three teams again in 2014.
Berry has successfully installed a run and gun type offense on the arm of Browning over the first four years in Monroe and it will be very interesting to see if Berry is able to mold another quarterback into a guy who can effectively lead the explosive attack. The attack was strong enough in 2012 to unseat 8th-ranked Arkansas in the season opener and give both Auburn and Baylor fits in weeks two and three before ultimately falling - the former occurring in a heartbreaking overtime fashion.
This season will be the ultimate test for where the ULM football team is as they can either continue a level of relatively sustained success over the past three years, or they can creep back down to the thick of things in the Sun Belt by failing to adequately replace their losses from last season.
Part two will be out tomorrow, where the 2014 ULM defense and special teams is broken down and a way-too-early prediction is given on the game.