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ULM Warhawks Preview

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The Wake Forest Demon Deacons kick off their 2014 season tonight at 7:00 p.m. on ESPNU against the ULM Warhawks. What should Wake fans expect to see from the Warhawks?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Time: 7 P.M.

TV: ESPNU

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)

Line: ULM -2

Over/Under: 45.5

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.

Offense

Browning capped off his illustrious career as a four-year starter with the Warhawks 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 division, they will need for a familiar face for Wake fans to rise to the challenge in Pete Thomas. Entering fall camp, junior Brayle Brown was 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.

However, midway through fall camp N.C. State graduate transfer Pete Thomas clinched the starting position and will be at the helm of the offense when tonight's game kicks off. Thomas is no stranger to the Demon Deacons as he was the starter for the Wolfpack last season in a 28-13 Wake Forest victory, where he went 27 for 43 with 257 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Following the season, a year which saw him benched halfway through, he transferred to ULM and was eligible immediately as he graduated from N.C. State.

To potentially help mitigate the offensive questions provided by a new face at the quarterback position, 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, but junior Tyler Cain is listed as Donald's backup on the week one depth chart. Cain redshirted last season following a knee injury but made ten appearances in his sophomore year.

Thomas will have a cache of experienced receivers to try and get the ball to as Rashon CeaserTony 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.

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 eight of eleven starters (losing only safety Isaiah Newsome, leading tackler in linebacker Cameron Blakes, and defensive end Darius Lively), including 13 of the 18 players who recorded double-digit tackles during the 2013 season.

The biggest issue last year for the Warhawks was undeniably 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 as 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 get the start in the middle tonight while the line is anchored by seniors Joey Gautney and junior Lorenzo Jackson who combined for 32.5 tackles and 3.5 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, junior Mitch Lane, and sophomore Justin Backus are be penciled in as the starters at the back of the secondary while sophomore Lenzy Pipkins and junior Trey Caldwell will start 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.

Coaching

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.

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 surrounding how well Pete Thomas can replace Kolton Browning at the helm of the offense. Wake's installation of a no-huddle offense will be an intriguing matchup against ULM's 3-3-5 set and it will be interesting to see how Wake's offense looks under Clawson. Similarly, Wake's new 4-2-5 defensive set against ULM's multiple offense look will be an entertaining matchup for most of the evening.

This game will likely help set the tone for the rest of the season and is a large test for a young Demon Deacon squad. Any possible path to six victories and bowl eligibility includes a win over the Warhawks in tonight's opener but Wake will need to play well to get the job done. Football season is back and less than twelve hours away, so it's time to settle in, grab a couple of drinks and welcome back Demon Deacon football. As always, go Deacs.