Superstars abound at ULM, though that won’t necessarily equate to big wins in 2020.
In terms of returning production on campus, ULM fans have to feel good about the likes of Corey Straughter, Josh Pederson and Josh Johnson donning maroon and white this fall.
With those three players, the Warhawks return the Sun Belt Conference leader in interceptions (Straughter), the conference leader for receptions by a tight end (Pederson) and the conference’s returning leader in rush yards per game (Johnson). Johnson finished second only behind then senior Tra Barnett in rushing yards per game last season.
Seriously, that’s a lot of star power.
The problem is the Warhawks will have to replace quarterback Caleb Evans, who has thrown for 9,510 yards and 58 touchdowns in his career. Add in the fact that he also accounted for 2,168 rushing yards and 36 more scores on the ground and you get the idea. That’s a lot of production the Warhawks must replace.
Oh and most of the guys blocking for him up front are gone also, so that makes things a little more complicated.
The cherry on top for this potentially disastrous sundae is play-caller Matt Kubik joined Southern Miss in February as the Golden Eagles new offensive coordinator. ULM head coach Matt Viator is no stranger to calling plays, so this hopefully will be a smooth transition for the Warhawks.
The question remains, however, if ULM can be as methodic as it has been in the past. The numbers certainly back up the offense’s efficiency through the years. ULM has finished as a top two offense in the conference in terms of yards per contest in two of the last three seasons.
So even with so much turnover, Viator still has a proven track record of finding ways to be effective offensively. Having said that, Viator, like every other coach on this planet, has never had to replace a quarterback, offensive line and offensive coordinator during a pandemic.
Things could be worse, I suppose. Viator could be attempting to juggle these things without Johnson and his 1,298 rushing yards returning in the backfield.
But let's suppose the offense hits a snag under these circumstance. Can the defense pick up the slack?
Alright I’ll admit, I felt your eye-roll as soon as you read that question.
While ULM has been one of the top teams in terms of offense the last few years in conference, it’s been one of those teams at the lonely bottom when it comes to defense. Heck, two of the previous three seasons saw the Warhawks allow more yards and more points than any other team in the Sun Belt.
Not to pile on but ULM’s 532 yards allowed in 2017 was the second most allowed by any team at the FBS level. Improvements were made in 2018, as the unit jumped up 40 spots nationally, but ULM found itself right back near the bottom in 2019 after giving up nearly 484 yards per contest. New Mexico and Massachusetts were the only two teams to give up more yards.
So as much as you’d like to inspire hope with a player like Straughter’s stature returning to the unit, ULM fans don’t want to hear about the prospect of improving its defense. They’ve gotten to the point where they just want to see it. Because if this year is anything like the year’s prior where the Warhawks have to find a way to win shootouts, it could prove to be quite troublesome with new starters all across the unit.
That’s why you won’t find much love from Las Vegas for the Warhawks in 2020. Vegas Insider has ULM’s win/loss total set at 4. If you look at the schedule, the Warhawks have very few “gimmie’s,” which is why it’s extremely important the Warhawks play Cal Poly in the season opener. ULM athletic director Scott McDonald recently told the News-Star that no scheduling changes are anticipated at this time.
Texas State follows in a swing game in the conference followed by Georgia. Sandwiched between Georgia Southern and Troy is a non-conference matchup against Hugh Freeze’s Liberty team that’s coming off of an eight-win season.
Then check out this gauntlet. ULM plays at Troy on Oct. 17, turns around and plays at Georgia State five days later and then gets to host Appalachian State on Oct. 31.
November isn’t kind either. The Warhawks play at Georgia State, Arkansas State and Arkansas before hosting those pesky Ragin’ Cajuns to close out the season.
You always want to be optimistic at this time of the year, but given the schedule and changes that are being made to a mostly dependable offense under Viator, growing pains seem unavoidable this fall.