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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Louisiana-Monroe

A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about UL-Monroe...
2006 Record
4-8 (3-4 Sun Belt, Sixth)
Past Five Years
18-40 (16-19 Sun Belt)
Returning Starters, Roughly
16 (9 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
Calvin Dawson fell through the cracks out of high school (check out his impressive measurables then) but began paying off as a junior, when he led the Sun Belt in rushing. He had his first 100-yard game of ‘06 at Alabama on a season-best 7.4 per carry, then had 128 on 6.74 at Arkansas en route to averaging well over five yards a pop in each of the final seven games. Hard-nosed, only 48 negative yards on 213 carries. Obviously, not some bum to be trifled with.
Bizarre Tradition
Not everyone thinks of Monroe as a necessarily tolerant or diverse place, and who knows whether that charge was very true of the Northeast Louisiana Indians as late as seven years ago. The Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, however, were born of NCAA-pressured racial tolerance and have been awarded for such each of the last two years by the Laboratory for Diversity in Sport at Texas A&M University (not mad scientists examining racially charged scenarios in petri dishes, I don’t think, despite the title). Not that this is "bizarre," but ULM was one of ten such schools nationwide in March, and one of only three repeat honorees. It received "special recognition" for "overall excellence in diversity, diversity strategy, graduation of African American male athletes, graduation of African American female athletes, and sex diversity of department employees." Whatever you are, you can feel at home at ULM, apparently, unless you’re a graphic representation of an Indian. There will be none of that, though actual Indians are okay, I guess. It doesn’t specify.

The school hasn’t had a winning overall record since moving to the Bowl Subdivision, but Northeast Louisiana was I-AA national champion in 1987, the first postseason trip since the 1947 Junior Sugar Bowl and the first of four playoff appearances in six years prior to moving up in class in 1993.

Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
The UL-Monroe water skiing team – officially a club, as skiing is not sanctioned by the NCAA, but one of more than 140 programs in the National Collegiate Water Ski Association – has won an absurd 19 of 28 national NCWSA titles since the first championship was awarded in 1979. Thirteen of the last fourteen championships have been won by ULM or rival UL-Lafayette, and one or the other has finished as at least runner-up every year since 1990. Arizona State, despite being located in the middle of the desert, is the only program even mildly challenging the directional Louisianan hold on collegiate water skiing in the last 15 years.
A few folks took exception last time to my opinion of the Sun Belt's wobbly status as a Bowl Subdivision conference, and will be dismayed to note that the league's astonishing 4-3 record against Conference USA last year - Rice, Memphis, SMU  and even eventual C-USA champion Houston were the very humbled victims, for the record, at least two of those on some shaky I-A ground their own selves - hasn't transformed me into a Sun Belt booster. Today we respectfully examine the future prospects of SBC pioneer Louisiana-Monroe, wherein the Warhawks will be given their due, but always in light of the program's 2-26 non-Sun Belt record since the league's formation in 2001. Although, to be fair, ULM's 0-5 run against I-AA teams during that span was finally broken last year against Alcorn State. So maybe it has turned a corner.

What's Changed: Very, very little here is different - the Warhawks bring back coach Charlie Weatherbie (late of Navy), starting quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster, the leading rusher in the conference (Calvin Dawson), the team's leading receiver (LaGregory Sapp) and three of the next four under him, all five starting offensive linemen and all four starting defensive linemen. The back seven of the defense is an area of some concern because both corners and a couple of the linebackers will be new, but even the secondary - where two of the team's top three tacklers resided and have departed - gets back Josh Thompson, a rover who bore his position literally by leading the conference with six interceptions and finishing second on the team in tackles.

Last year's depth chart listed the defense as a 4-2-5 alignment, with Thompson playing one of the five at some undisclosed location on the field depending on the scenario. This year's depth chart (PDF; scroll down) looks like a more conventional 4-3, with Thompson, still listed as a rover, more firmly among the secondary. Not sure if that represents an actual schematic change, but the Warhawks could use another guy around the line of scrimmage: opponents averaged 150 yards per game rushing, 84th in the nation.


Kinsmon, mon.
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What's the Same: Occasional interception issues were not the result of pressure: the veteran Indian/Warhawk line had another terriffic season preventing sacks. As brand new freshman and sophomore starters in '05, Larry Shappley, Joseph Joseph, Adam Hill, Aaron "Don't Call Me Schultz" Schutz and anchor Kyle Cunningham allowed nine QB takedowns, the fourth-best number in the country and not the result of incessant handing off (Steven Jyles attempted more than 400 passes, which works out to a sack every 45 attempts). Assuming some kind of aberration and accounting for the loss of Jyles' elusiveness in the pocket, I gambled last summer on that total increasing - and I was right: substituting Patrick Avinger for Joseph, the same group allowed 13 sacks, albeit on just 313 attempts this time, about one sack per 24 dropbacks. Only fifth in the country per game, the slackers.

This line success has to be a product of Weatherbie's influence, since the then-Indians were fifth in the nation in sacks allowed with an entirely different starting five in 2004; the NCAA's numbers aren't there for 2003 on back. Shappley, Avinger, Hill, Schutz and Cunningham have one last season together in dutiful obscurity, but they join the boys at Memphis as the only line combinations to finish in the top ten in sacks allowed each of the past two seasons. And Memphis throws way less.

The 'K' Is For 'Kryptonite, Bizarro': The Warhawk offense visited two BCS conference teams in '06 from states beginning with the esteemed eleventh letter, Kansas and Kentucky, and for no apparent reason delivered easily its best passing performance (377 yards, two touchdowns, no picks) against the former and it best rushing performance (351 yards, four touchdowns) against the latter. It should be noted Kentucky was 108th against the run at year's end and Kansas dead last nationally in stopping the pass, but Monroe contributed heavily to both results and took more prolific advantage of their generosity than almost any Big Twelve or SEC offense. ULM lost both games by a combined four points and didn't go off in remotely the same way against the rest of its own conference or anybody else.

In general, the offense hit its stride in November. Through the first eight games, ULM was 0-7 against I-A competition and had only cracked 20 points once, in a 35-21 loss to Middle Tennessee State. Beginning with an unsurprising, 35-0 shutout of winless Florida International, the Warhawks suddenly put up 35, 40, 23 and 39 points over the final month and cracked 400 yards in each of the last three games; Dawson, the team no longer scrambling from behind, had at least 23 carries in all four of those games after hitting 20 just once in the first eight. He also scored eight touchdowns. There were only two other personnel differences in the sudden improvement: receiver J.J. McCoy missed the entire month with an injury that's carried over to this Spring, which was probably just a coincidence, and backup Erroll Hogan logged double digit carries in three of the last four. Otherwise, either ULM was on steroids or its competition was drugged. Those are the only possible explanations.

Don't Forget to Count the Players For Both Teams. They're Here, Too...: More attendance issues: Monroe averaged right at 14,000 announced for four home games last year and 14,600 in five 2005 home games. The NCAA requires "15,000 people in actual or paid attendance per home game" to be met once in a rolling two-year period. UL-Monroe seems to have failed this requirement, according to official NCAA attendance figures, unless there is some variability in how "paid" attendance might be reported compared to announced numbers. At any rate, they're still with the big boys, but I'm not sure why. There is probably a good explanation.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter: Weatherbie was "excited" the team accomplished its primary goal, which was to make it through the Maroon and Gold Game two weeks ago with no injuries. Mission accomplished, with the added abilities on display from backup running backs Tay Ogletree ("quickness and slashing capabilities") and Frank Goodin ("has a hit and bounce, then [can] outrun the defense") in Dawson's temporary absence. Doesn't sound like a very exciting game, but maybe they're just laying low. That's cool.

UL-Monroe on YouTube: Who says you can't run out of the shotgun? Well, nobody, these days, not with Northwestern and West Virginia and all, but for more proof, here are pair of examples of well-executed counter traps from the gun by the Warhawks in last year's opener against Alcorn State:

If you guessed there's not much public video out there concerning UL-Monroe football, you're a pretty good guesser.

See also: If you look hard enough at the end of this scramble, you'll see the "big hit" referenced in the title against UL-Lafayette last December; User Ermis33 dusts off the Wishbook playbook to startlingly balanced success against a friend's version of ULL; and, um, nothing to do with UL-Monroe football, but here's Bill Monroe singing "Close By" in 1957.

Best-Case: Monroe will rock for Tulsa's ESPN2-covered visit in the opener, the school's first ever appearance on national television as far as I can tell - Northeast Louisiana/UL-Monroe has never been to a bowl game, so I don't know what other occasion they may have had to get on; maybe in the old I-AA playoff days - but that's not a very likely ULM win. Ditto that and add stars for subsequent trips to Texas A&M and Clemson and a November pounding at Alabama. There's room for a lot of optimism within the conference, though, up to six wins out of seven - I won't pinpoint the loss among a bunch of teams that look mostly alike and show little coherent pecking order year to year, but ULM's best conference record to date is 5-2, so picking one game better than that strikes me as very optimistic. That would leave the Warhawks at 7-5 and in a position to go to a bowl game for the first time since the school was a junior college 60 years ago.

Worst-Case: The thing with the Sun Belt having little coherent pecking order is that any presumed frontrunner, as North Texas and UL-Lafayette have proved the last two years, is a potential sucker of tailpipes. And Monroe is not a frontrunner. If it were to repeat last year's 3-4 conference record, and again beat the I-AA team (Grambling) without proving more than a nuissance to the schedule's bigger game, 2007 will look an awful lot like 2006: 4-8, no bowl. I don't know what Weatherbie's expectations are - he just signed a three-year extension - but he will have to break that pattern eventually.

Non-Binding Forecast: The fact that this group played Kansas and Kentucky - both BCS conference teams at or above .500 - to the hilt, ended last season on a mini-roll and returns so many starters is an indicator of some improvement. I'm already on record as pegging Troy as the team to beat in the Sun Belt, which I stand by because of Omar Haugabook, but the Warhawks ought to at least challenge that assumption, and be disappointed if they don't. Lancaster's play is a key: another 1:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio won't do for a legitimate contender. That's something ULM is not, yet, but it might take a step up to .500 - say, 6-6 overall, with consistent success in-conference - and that is significant improvement.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati