Preview: ULM Warhawks (Pt. 2 - Defense And Special Teams)

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first part of a twelve-part series that will preview every team that Wake Forest faces during the 2014 season. The Deacs start the season against the University of Louisiana at Monroe of the Sun Belt Conference on August 28th at 7 P.M. on ESPNU.

ULM's offense and coaching was chronicled yesterday while part two takes a look at the defense and special teams that the Warhawks will bring to the table. The overall good news for these two sectors is the number of returning players they will boast across the board. However the bad news for ULM is that the defense ranked 91st in the country in total defense per game and 84th in the nation in points allowed per game at 30.2. If the Warhawks want to return to a bowl game after a one year absence, it is critical that they see improvement on the defensive front - an area where they have every right to be optimistic moving forward.

Defense

Despite the relatively poor performance last year from the defense across the board, perhaps best exhibited in a game against high-scoring Baylor where the Bears could have hung 100 if they wanted, Todd Berry's team returns a wealth of experience. Overall the unit returns nine of eleven starters (losing only safety Isaiah Newsome and leading tackler in linebacker Cameron Blakes), including 14 of the 18 players who recorded double-digit tackles during the 2013 season.

The biggest issue last year for the Warhawks was undeniably in their rush defense where they gave up nearly 200 yards per game and showed a general inability to penetrate the backfield much at all even in the passing game where they recorded only 16 sacks. While some of this could be due to scheme, it was in large part due to the defensive line's inability to get any meaningful pressure in the backfield. This lack of pressure becomes even more baffling when it is quite clear ULM runs a somewhat exotic 3-3-5 set as its primary formation. Generally speaking the 3-3-5 is considered to be successful at snuffing out the rush attack, and teams putting this front in the box can normally generate pressure and penetration.

The 3-3-5 version that ULM employs will typically have a nose tackle, two defensive ends, four linebackers, three traditional secondary members, and two hybrid "rovers" who can typically play both linebacker and in the secondary. While it is called a "three-front" formation, very rarely will there only be three "gap" guys on the front and frequently a linebacker has a hand on the ground and is pushed to a more traditionally defensive lineman role.

Despite the 3-3-5 identity over the past couple of years, ULM has struggled. While it is a complex defense to learn, it can help teams who are slightly undermanned in various areas by steepening the learning curve for opposing offenses in limited matchups against the relatively unique set. The Warhawks will be heavily reliant upon the experienced defensive line, comprised of three seniors and two juniors who are expected to see the bulk of the minutes. Perhaps the most formidable opponent on the front is junior nose tackle Gerrand Johnson who recorded 40 tackles, 11 for a loss, and one sack last season. He will likely get the start in the middle while the line is anchored by two seniors Joey Gautney and Darius Lively who combined for 43.5 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year on the outside.

Berry will need to find someway to mitigate the loss of linebacker Cameron Blakes who recorded a team-leading 60 tackles last year to go along 7.5 for a loss, and four sacks. Junior Hunter Kissinger will look to fill this massive hole by increasing his 55 tackles and will be aided by senior Ray Stovall who had an impressive eleven takedowns in the backfield as a part of 40 overall tackles along with two sacks. ULM is pretty deep at the backer spot with juniors Cody Robinson and Michael Johnson sure to see a lot of playing time as they did last year over ten games a piece, combining for 47.5 tackles.

While the aforementioned Isaiah Newsome recorded four interceptions, broke up three passes, and had 39.5 tackles last season, there is plenty of depth to step up into Newsome's shoes. At least five returning members of the secondary broke up three or more passes and nine of the top eleven tacklers in the sector return. Senior Cordero Smith and junior Mitch Lane will likely be penciled in as the starters at secondary while sophomore Justin Backus and junior Trey Caldwell will probably be the starters at cornerback.

Special Teams

The ULM special teams group basically returns everyone of note, including punter/kicker Justin Manton who punted the ball 80 times for an average of 45.8 yards per punt and went 5-9 on field goals (5-8 on those inside 40 yards). Additionally Manton put the ball in the back of the end zone 30 times on 53 kickoffs for a touchback percentage of 56.6%. The unit returned two kicks for touchdowns last year, one from rising junior kickoff returner Cortney Davis and one from rising junior punt returner Rashon Ceaser.

Unfortunately for ULM, the experience might not be too meaningful for a unit which finished last year with the fourth-worst adjusted special teams rate in the country.

Overall Take

The first game of the Clawson-era will likely be a closely contested one. The Warhawks snuck out with a two point victory last year in Winston and are likely to be somewhat similar to the 2013 squad, with the major question being can they adequately replace Kolton Browning at the helm of the offense. Wake has way too many unknowns at this point of the summer to talk about matchups, so those specifics will be reserved for the weeks leading up to the opener.

Somehow, the betting site 5Dimes, which actually is a reputable source, has Wake as a 7.5 point favorite going on the road to Louisiana. Now I don't claim to be any gambling expert, but when you add up the fact that Wake returns almost nobody of note in offensive skill positions from a team who won four games a season ago, it doesn't really seem to make much sense that the Deacs should be a touchdown-plus favorite in an opening road game with a new coach. Needless to say if the line remains at -7.5 I would be pretty tempted to put some money on the home dog Warhawks.

My way too early prediction for this one:

ULM 24

Wake 21

Check back next week for a preview of the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs which will be the Demon Deacons' first home game of the 2014 football season. As always, go Deacs!

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