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NCAA Football Preview - ULM Warhawks

<p>The Warhawks stunned the college football world in their opener on Sept. 8 by defeating No. 8 Arkansas in Little Rock, 34-31 in overtime, marking the program's first-ever win over a ranked opponents and the first win over a top-10 opponent in Sun Belt Conference history. The squad finished the month of September by suffering hard-fought losses at Auburn (31-28 in OT) and versus Baylor (47-42), before dismantling Tulane (63-10).</p>

The Warhawks stunned the college football world in their opener on Sept. 8 by defeating No. 8 Arkansas in Little Rock, 34-31 in overtime, marking the program's first-ever win over a ranked opponents and the first win over a top-10 opponent in Sun Belt Conference history. The squad finished the month of September by suffering hard-fought losses at Auburn (31-28 in OT) and versus Baylor (47-42), before dismantling Tulane (63-10).

ULM's success continued in Sun Belt play with four straight wins to open the conference slate, and while it suffered setbacks to Louisiana (40-24) and Arkansas State (45-23) in early November, it closed out the regular season with a pair of wins over North Texas (42-16) and FIU (23-17 in OT).

The team was invited to the Independence Bowl for its first-ever bowl appearance, although it fell to Ohio University in a 45-14 final.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: ULM showed explosive tendencies on offense a season ago, scoring 33.8 ppg behind 432.8 ypg, and more of the same should be expected in 2013 with eight starters back in place.

The key to the Warhawks' success this season undoubtedly lies on the shoulders of quarterback Kolton Browning, who was outstanding as a junior with 3,049 yards on 63.8 percent efficiency, tossing 29 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. He was also the team's leading rusher with 488 yards, adding seven more scores on the ground. All that production came while missing the better part of two games with a foot injury, so it's no surprise that Browning was named the conference's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

Browning won't have the luxury of throwing to Brent Leonard this year (104 rec, 1118 yards, 10 TDs), but Je'Ron Hamm (65 rec, 915 yards, six TDs) and Tavarese Maye (56 rec, 612 yards, four TDs) are stellar options in their own right.

Jyruss Edwards appeared in just eight games in 2012 and rushed for 438 yards and six touchdowns. Both he and Browning will benefit from playing behind an experienced offensive line that returns four starters.

DEFENSE: One of the biggest reasons ULM couldn't hold on to first place in the conference standings down the stretch last year was due to its poor defense (29.2 ppg, 418.8 ypg), but the unit actually remains more in tact than the offense by welcoming back nine starters.

Although the defense struggled for the most part, it showed plenty of big-play potential, racking up 24 sacks, 16 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks. The return of Ray Stovall (63 tackles, 13.5 TFL, three sacks), Isaiah Newsome (57 tackles, four picks), Cordero Smith (71 tackles, one interception), Rob'Donovan Lewis (69 tackles, two picks, two FR) and Vincent Eddie (68 tackles, one pick) should all but ensure a better defensive effort in 2013.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Manton, who served as both the kicker and the punter a year ago, is back for his junior season. He averaged nearly 40 yards per punt with 19 placed inside the 20-yard line, but he had a lackluster season in terms of kicking field goals (5-of-9, three blocked).

Cortney Davis (34 kick returns for 748 yards in 2012) will likely be the top option in the return game.

OUTLOOK: ULM put together an outstanding season in 2012, and had it not been for Browning's untimely injury in November, it could have been much better. With most of the team's core returning this season, it's no surprise that it was chosen along with Arkansas State as the No. 1 team in the Sun Belt Preseason Poll.

"We like that (being the favorite)," Browning said. "We like the target on our back. Last year, we started off in conference really well. Kind of lost a couple in a row, but we came back and finished strong. With 17, 18 starters returning, that's big for us. We're excited about that."

"This is the first time that we have a senior- and junior-dominated team," Berry added. "There's no question that we've built for this season. We do have the most cumulative starters coming back of anybody in the country. We've got a lot of guys that have played a lot of football."

With the exception of maybe Antonio Andrews from Western Kentucky, there's no better playmaker than Browning in the Sun Belt, and as long as he stays upright for a full season, the Warhawks will be in contention for the league title and, at the very least, another bowl appearance.

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