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OAYP Sun Belt Preview: ULM

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jim Johnson breaks down the 2019 Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks using his OAYP advanced metric.

It’s August and college football is just around the corner. To get ready for the Sun Belt season, I’ll be previewing each of the league’s teams through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric. In short, the formula takes each program’s opponent adjusted performance from 2018 and combines that score with the individual player scores that we have released throughout the offseason, in order to make it predictive.

ULM is up today.

Below you’ll find the team’s projected starting lineup, plus some key contributors, with each qualifying returnee’s marginal OAYP score and Sun Belt position ranking. The players with OAYP scores and rankings listed are full qualifiers. Players with OAYP scores but not rankings listed were second tier qualifiers, but did not meet the full qualifying threshold. Players with neither listed did not meet any qualifying threshold.

However, whereas the prior marginal OAYP rankings reflected each player’s number only relative to the Sun Belt, these scores are relative to Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area -- so the ACC and SEC, as well. This should more accurately reflect a given player’s efficiency and value since the sample size now includes over 600 players, so especially strong or weak groups in any particular league won’t skew the rankings anymore.

This team has some high end foundational pieces, but right now it's simply the bridge between the top tier and the bottom tier of the Sun Belt. To join the ranks of the SBC’s ruling class, it’s on the supporting cast to develop around the existing proven commodities.

OFFENSE

2018 Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.24 (4)
2019 Projected Offensive OAYP (Rank): -0.12 (4)
QB Ranking: 3
RB Ranking: 8
WR/TE Ranking: 10
OL Ranking: 3

This offense, more so than the defense, has the skeletal pieces of what could be a really good unit.

After breaking out in 2017, expectations were high for Caleb Evans and the Warhawks last year. In some ways, 2018 was a disappointment for both. The team finished .500 and Evans saw a modest to pronounced statistical dip pretty much across the board, aside from his rushing efficiency. On the bright side, ULM was still in the hunt for a conference title bid right down to the wire, and Evans nonetheless managed to finish second in total offense, yards per attempt, third in passing touchdowns, and fourth in rushing scores in conference play. He is losing his top two targets from the past couple of years, but what projects to be one of the better offensive lines in the Sun Belt does lend some enhanced upside to his senior season.

That group protecting Evans returns all five starters, two of which graded out in the ‘second tier’ threshold, two more who scored positively, and one, in Trace Ellison, who came in just below the mean relative to the Sun Belt, ACC, and SEC, but is a perfectly serviceable tackle. Guard T.J. Fialoa highlights a Warhawk front that finished in the national top ten in line yards per carry and the top 25 in stuff rate.

With a top three quarterback and offensive line, the questions lie amongst the skill positions.

The running game was quite good in 2018, but that had more to do with Evans than it did Derrick Gore, so there shouldn’t be much, if any dropoff, even though Austin Vaughn only barely met OAYP’s secondary qualifying threshold, and Kayin White met neither. For what it’s worth, albeit on smaller sample sizes, Vaughn averaged basically the same yards per carry as Gore, while White had more than either of them. Vaughn and Gore also had similar touchdown rates, but White bested them both again there. Vaughn and White each had substantially higher marginal efficiencies, success rates, and five yard rushes per attempt, though. The only place Gore really had them both beat was at the second level. If nothing else, though Evans will still need need to shoulder a good bit of the ball carrying burden, the run game should at least be incrementally more efficient.

The same can not be said for the receiving corps. After the graduation of Marcus Green, one of the best all-purpose playmakers in recent college football memory, and the transfer of RJ Turner, this team is in desperate need of playmaking on the outside. And, unfortunately, there are no obvious candidates to fill that void. Markis McCray is the only qualifying returnee, and, obviously, OAYP is not a fan. Xavier Brown was really unreliable from the slot, last year, posting a sub-50% catch rate, just 6.6 yards per target, and no touchdowns. He has to be steadier in 2019. Until proven otherwise, tight end Josh Pederson and the two running backs, Vaughn to a greater degree than White, might be the most effective pass catchers on the team.

Like I said, ULM has a good starting point, and any team with a good QB and O-Line can be competitive, but some playmakers need to emerge for this group to be any more than that. And, frankly, unless the defense gets a lot better, the offense will need to be more than just competitive to get this team over the hump.

DEFENSE

2018 Defensive OAYP: -0.94 (6)
2019 Projected Defensive OAYP: -0.81 (6)
EDGE Ranking: 6
DL Ranking: 6
LB Ranking: 8
CB Ranking: 6
S Ranking: 9

This front seven is littered with guys ranging from All-Sun Belt caliber athletes to below average, but serviceable role players. However, there aren’t really any dire weaknesses, and there is plenty of depth.

Defensive end Kerry Starks was reinstated to the team a couple of weeks ago after missing spring practice due to an offseason arrest. As arguably the best defender on the team, he provides some much needed playmaking off the edge. He ranks in the top three of all returning Sun Belt defenders in tackles for loss, sacks, and forced fumbles, and is ULM’s leading returnee in run stuffs. There’s good depth opposite Starks, too, with Donald Louis, a top ten SBC edge defender who fell just half a stuff shy of tying Starks for team lead in stuffs, and Ty Shelby. Those two have also reportedly been kicking inside in sub-packages to try to further bolster a pass rush that was already among the nation’s best, ranking 13th in the country in adjusted sack rate last year.

The interior defensive line also has good depth, and a top end talent in Larance Shaw who allowed the lowest success rate of any returning Warhawk in the front seven. He’ll be accompanied by Jaylen Veasley, who missed spring practice due to an offseason arrest as well, and Mason Hussman.

The linebacking corps did take a big hit with the loss of David Griffith, but Chase Day will look to build on a solid 3028 campaign and pick up a lot of that slack, while Cortez Cisco offers an adequate complement, particularly in coverage.

The secondary is where the concerns lie. Especially given how effective the pass rush was, the pass defense numbers as a whole are almost inexplicable. Corey Straughter should be the best part of the defensive backfield, and he does have upper echelon ball skills, but there’s still a long way to go for him to join the elite ranks of a top heavy Sun Belt cornerback class. The return of Rhoy Williams will provide some experience to that group, too, after missing all of last season with an injury.

Nonetheless, while returning experience is good, returning effective players is better. This was far from an effective group in 2018, and I would caution against much excitement simply because the names and faces have remained the same.

To a lesser degree than the offense, but to some extent no less, there is enough playmaking in the front seven to be cautiously optimistic about ULM’s defensive outlook. That said, as frightening as the pass rush may be, if nothing changes on the backend, the overall efficacy of the unit won’t be much different either.

POSITION GROUP RANKINGS

1. Quarterback
2. Offensive Line
3. Edge Defenders
4. Defensive Line
5. Running Backs
6. Pass Catchers
7. Linebackers
8. Cornerbacks
9. Safeties

TOP 100 PLAYERS

These are the athletes listed in my annual preseason ranking of the 100 best players in the Sun Belt, which combines my personal opinion and the eye test with the OAYP metric.

33. QB Caleb Evans
40. OG T.J. Fiailoa
53. OT Eastwood Thomas
59. C Bobby Reynolds
60. OG Devin Jackson
63. DL Larance Shaw
75. OT Trace Ellison

*Kerry Starks was not included in the ranking given the uncertainty about his status at the time of the release

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Aside from ULM having the most aesthetically pleasing conference schedule yet (I love the stark red-green contrast), it’s not unfathomable to see this team winning the West. Dodging Troy out of the East is huge, and while the Warhawks are still significant dogs against the other top teams from the other division, both of which are road trips, one score swing games at home against Arkansas State and at Louisiana will make or break the season, barring any slip-ups. The one trap game to watch out for is at Texas State on a short week after playing Memphis, which might be the best G5 team in the country this year.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP