This week, I'm speaking with Tabby Soignier, who covers Louisiana-Monroe for The News-Star. Tabby has been covering the Warhawks since 2009, but she sat out last season to fight a rare type of ovarian cancer. But she kept up with ULM, she beat cancer and now, she's back on the beat. Among other things, Tabby and I discuss ULM's confidence level, the Warhawks' star quarterback and whether or not they really have a shot at winning on Saturday.
Before the season, the Louisiana-Monroe game looked like a tune-up for Auburn before facing LSU. Now, the Tigers are 0-2 and the Warhawks have beaten a top 10 team on the road. What is the level of confidence coming from Warhawk coaches and players right now, and are they actually having to avoid becoming too confident?
ULM was confident before the season because this is a team that has been building up to a big moment like last week for three years now. The team is full of juniors and seniors, who started as true and redshirt freshmen, and so they knew if they allowed the time to grow up in the system and build depth around them that this could happen. They talked of the possibility of beating Arkansas last week very early into fall camp, so they did not seem surprised. There does not seem to an overconfident vibe from the team now, either. They have constantly talked about having a chip on their shoulder after finishing 5-7 in 2010 and coming one point shy of their first bowl appearance in school history. Last year, the Warhawks turned in a 4-8 season and lost four games by seven points or less. The chip may have been lifted, but there is a new chip that's replaced it, and that is proving to everyone that last week wasn't a fluke.
Warhawk quarterback Kolton Browning was named Walter Camp offensive player of the week after an incredible performance against Arkansas. What is his skill set? With Browning at the helm, what does the ULM offense want to do?
Browning showed signs of greatness as a young player when he beat out a returning senior starter in the spring 2010 as a redshirt freshman. He has a lot of natural talent. He was the all-state MVP for his district in Texas not only in football, but in baseball and basketball, also. He is a player that his teammates have turned to for guidance and the one expected to make a play for most of his life so the pressure does not seem to faze him. He's leaned on his arm for the past two years because the offensive line wasn't as developed as it is now, so a lot of times, he was running for his life or getting a quick pass off. Now, it seems he has more time to see what the defense is giving him and lately that has turned into some big keepers on his part. He's really been able to show off not only his elusiveness, but also his speed. With Browning at the helm, ULM is very complex, but it's also because there are a lot of mature players in the system, too -- like the O-line that is much stronger and bigger due to a few years now in the weight room, or receivers' relationship with their quarterback, or just knowing their assignments including when to block. Plays and schemes haven't changed, but it looks like a completely different offense out there just because of what every player on offense is able to carry out.
Aside from Browning, who else on the offensive side of the ball may make a big impact on Saturday's game?
Senior receiver Brent Leonard is a big impact player, but you wouldn't know it from looking at him. A lot of people have referred to him as "Harry Potter" because he wears eye glasses and does not have the typical body of a collegiate athlete, but when he puts the helmet on, it's a different story. He led the nation for most of 2010 in fourth-down conversions and took some powerful hits along the way. He is definitely a player that you go to when trying to make a crucial play -- like last week when he scored the tying touchdown on a 23-yard reception to send the game into OT.
Junior running back Jyruss Edwards will have to take most the carries this week. He will be missing the thunder part of the thunder-and-lightning combination. Junior Centarius Donald, the big, run-over-you type back has a knee injury, so Edwards will be getting the bulk of the carries. Usually, they split, but Edwards is the starter. He is the quicker, going-to-make-you-miss type back and has some impressive speed.
ULM runs an interesting 3-3-5 defense, which isn't used by many college teams. How did defensive coordinator Troy Reffett decide on employing this defense? What makes his version of the 3-3-5 unique, and what types of problems can it give the Auburn offense?
Reffett was introduced to the 3-3-5 at his previous stop, New Mexico under then-head coach Rocky Long (now head coach at San Diego State). He came to ULM in 2009 under former coach Charlie Weatherbie and installed the scheme, so most of the starters have been in it for their entire careers. The 3-3-5 is unique because it causes a lot of confusion with offenses. Once you think you've got it figured out, they can throw something completely different at you. There are several different looks and coverages in their playbook.
Which Warhawk defenders will give Auburn the most trouble? Which players will likely come up with the biggest plays for ULM?
Outside linebacker Cameron Blakes is a three-year starter and is an NFL prospect. He may not have the most tackles at the end of the night, but he will put the most pressure on you and pop you pretty good. Based off hits from last week, I would give him credit for why Tyler Wilson didn't come back into the game. The three-man front is the best it's been in the four years that this defense has been installed. Missouri transfer Gerrand Johnson (he only stayed at Mizzou for one semester) is starting as a redshirt freshman and has a very dominating presence at nose guard, which is considered the most important position within the defense. The two ends, Joey Gautney and Kentarius Caldwell, are also very quick off the line and pass rush often. Safety Mitch Lane started his first collegiate game last week at Arkansas -- as it was his first collegiate game period since he's a redshirt freshman -- and he led the team in tackles (nine) and pass breakups (four). He is at a hybrid safety position which is called the Hawk. He will be a very good player for ULM for years to come.
How do you expect the game to turn out? Do you think last week's result was a bit of a one-time thing, or does ULM have a legitimate shot at beating two SEC teams in a row? If so, will the Warhawks do it?
ULM has a legitimate shot. It's not that Arkansas isn't any good. ULM has just had a chance to mature in the program under Berry and have had a lot of letdowns to get to this point. Now, they are a stronger and more physical team that knows the playbook very well. The defense going up against a young QB (similar to when Arkansas' back up came in) is going to be interesting to see, because it seems they can cause a lot of confusion, especially with players who haven't played a lot of college football. It will also be interesting to see if the offense can continue to move the ball as successfully as it did against Arkansas' defense. They have the confidence that they can do so against SEC defenses so it should be a close game, but I am not going to put a score on it.