Early in the season, when nobody is really sure who anybody else "is" yet and very few teams have truly opened up their playbooks, sometimes the best course of action for previewing a team is to look at the individual players, their strengths and weaknesses, to find out more about the whole of the team. Today, we'll look at the Warhawks you should know before this Saturday's game, beginning with the obvious, QB Kolton Browning.
This is one I probably didn't need to preview for you, but I will. The straw that stirs the ULM drink, QB Kolton Browning is the senior leader of this team and the primary reason their offense works. He's the guy that beat Arkansas in dramatic fashion to start 2012 and then nearly beat Auburn the following week before we knew that Auburn was going to be awful. That was the two games directly prior to him throwing down 300+ total yards against us in a game Baylor fans should remember, because we very nearly lost. Just in case you don't, however, his 2012 stat line through 3 games.
From a skills perspective, Browning's primary attribute has to be his mobility. He's not an especially good thrower, nor does he have an especially strong arm, but he forces defenses to cover receivers longer than they are used to by evading the pass rush and breaking the pocket. This year, he's not running as much or as well as he has in the past through the first three games, and that's something I don't really know what to do with. Whether it's a decision ULM made or a point of emphasis from his opponents, we can't be sure.
For whatever reason, outside of one game against Grambling State, Browning hasn't been the dynamic offensive force ULM probably expected, having already put up 2 games this year with a worse passer rating than all but one last year, the finale against Ohio. Most of that is due to a total lack of success against OU and 2 interceptions against Wake. He already has 4 of those on the young season. For a player known for his relative efficiency leading the ULM attack, he hasn't been very efficient this season.
Still, I highly doubt that his skills have evaporated in such a short amount of time, and we can't take Browning lightly. The last thing we want is to give a player who has struggled throwing the ball this season the chance to light us up and gain confidence. Baylor has to be disciplined in containment to keep him in the pocket and solid in coverage down the field. At this point, Browning probably isn't a player that can beat you solely with his arm, so if you take away the running aspect, you can limit his impact considerably.
The good news here is that ULM's leading receiver from last year, Brent Leonard, graduated. That leaves three primary receivers behind to pick up his slack. So far, they are led by...
Wouldn't make much sense to focus on Browning without mention his biggest target, right? So far this year, Ceasar, a sophomore, has 21 catches through 3 games, a year after having 20 catches for the entire season. We'll probably cover him on the outside with Joe Williams, unless we think Demetri Goodson is really 100% coming off his injury. If images of Alex Neutz are dancing through your head right now, stop them, because I don't think Ceasar is the player Neutz was. He's smaller, for one thing, so our CBs should be able to handle him better at the line, and he's not quite as fast. He does, however, also return punts and kicks for ULM, so he's clearly someone that they want with the ball in his hands.
The second ULM WR to know is Je'Ron Hamm, a much more physical receiver than either Ceasar or Maye. The third-leading receiver on the ULM team this year, he's actually the one that gives me the most pause because of his size and strength. He was also second on the team in receiving last year behind only Leonard with 900 yards. He didn't do much against us a year ago (3 catches for 49 yards), but he's a big target. I don't relish the idea of him matched up against Williams or K.J. Morton, that's for sure.
The final member of the ULM receiving troika, all of whom have awesome names. Maye is eerily similar to Ceasar according to the heights/weights we have in the system (and they match those on the ULM depth chart, for what it's worth), and plays much the same way, as well. His production has been relatively limited so far this season, as he's only caught 15 passes for 105 yards. Still, this is a fairly imposing group of receivers that should give our secondary quite the challenge.
Two names to know in this group, and one of them ripped Baylor for 120 yards in last year's game. He's up first.
This is the one who knocked in Monroe last year, rushing for 120 yards on 21 carries in their game against us a year ago. He's leading ULM in rushing this year with 193 yards on 28 carries for an impressive 6.7 yards per carry. He's also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield; in his sophomore year in 2010, he caught 31 passes for 203 yards, and as a junior, despite missing 5 games, he caught 12 more. That's more than ours can say, that's for sure. This year, he's caught six total through 3 games. He's the starter listed on the latest depth chart for the Warhawks, and the one we're probably going to see get the majority of carries.
The Future at RB for the Warhawks. McNeal is the highest-rated skill position recruit (5.6 by RR) on ULM's entire offense, though he's played mostly in relief of Edwards so far this season, carrying the ball 16 times for 109 yards. Once Edwards graduates this year, I expect that McNeal will receive the majority of carries, especially with the Warhawks transitioning to a new QB. But by the time that happens, we won't care anymore, because we won't be playing them. Still someone worth watching.
I included Gautney on this list because he has 2.5 sacks this season, tied for the team lead with the next player on the list. Also, to remind you that ULM runs a rather strange 3-3-5 alignment we might see again vs. West Virginia (they run a 3-4ish thing). I wrote about that defense last year.
You know what? You should probably read that again. I'm going to put it in the ULM hub and reopen for comments. For those that don't want to...
Thus, the defense basically uses two hybrid defenders a la Ahmad Dixon to emphasize flexibility; they can hang back in a more traditional role in pass coverage or bring an extra man in run support or the pass rush. For ULM these two players are Cordero Smith and Isaiah Newsome, and their ability to fill multiple roles makes the defense extremely interesting. They allow ULM to play three linebackers and two hybrid DBs all capable of blitzing or covering on any given play. (For a more in-depth discussion of the coverage options available to a 3-3-5, look here).
Both ULM's defensive signal caller at MLB and their leading tackler, Cameron Blakes is the biggest name to know on the other side of the ball for the Warhawks. Though he played against Baylor, Blakes missed almost the entire year in 2012 with an injury, but he's back now, racking up 25 tackles and 2.5 sacks through 3 games this year. Those 2.5 sacks contribute to his team-leading 3.0 tackles for loss (ULM, as a whole, has 19 TFL through 3 games).
This is probably the other big name to know on ULM's defense. I have little to say about him other than that he plays safety and wears #1, so he shouldn't be hard to see. After the game, you'll probably recognize him from such plays as "Trailing in Tevin Reese's wake" and "Getting juked by Lache Seastrunk in the open field." We're rough on safeties, what can I say?
That's 7 players -- 4 offense, 3 defense -- with whom you should be at least generally familiar prior to the start of Saturday's game. If you're not, I bet you will be quickly. I really don't think ULM is as bad as they've looked folks. I really don't.