Todd Berry is leading a renaissance in Monroe. He brought a freshman-filled Warhawk team to the very edge of bowl eligibility last season, and this season is enjoying the fruits of that experience, now with a sophomore-filled team. The Warhawks come to Fort Worth on Saturday for TCU's first home game in the renovating Amon Carter Stadium. (TCU page, schedule, roster, stats)
ULM head coach Todd Berry says he "can't even describe" how much better 2011’s fall camp began, compared to 2010’s, when he was the new head coach. "Last year the kids were still trying to figure out the systems, trying to figure out why the coaches were yelling at them to get moving, and all that kind of stuff." He noted there was a lot less yelling this year.
The contrast continued to impress the coach a few days into two-a-days, "I am tremendously pleased with our retention. We had very few mental mistakes." He added, "there is so much difference between where we were at last year compared to now." A few days later the praise continued, "I'm seeing a lot more speed when it comes to execution," Berry said. "They're reacting to our schemes a lot quicker."
All the returning experience and retention isn’t Berry’s favorite aspect of his team.
"I really like the chemistry on this team. They compete for each other, they drive each other, they play for each other rather than themselves... That's what probably has me more excited than anything else.
Offensive coordinator Steve Farmer sounds like his boss when describing the team. "They're recognizing things a lot better," Farmer said. "We have a group of guys out there that know what to do."
The team felt disappointed that it didn’t upset Florida State in the opener.
"That's a good thing," Berry said. "I don't know that I felt that last year at any point when we played one of these elite teams nor did I feel that before (as ULM's offensive coordinator)."
Berry takes the blame for the loss. "We were more conservative," Berry said. "With those two freshmen offensive linemen — and I probably didn't give them enough credit — I didn't want to go through another LSU game in which we turn the ball over and they get quick scores. How much can we cut this thing loose? But we are a lot better when we cut it loose. Looking back, we would have been more aggressive."
The aggression begins at quarterback. Sophomore Kolton Browning finished second on the team in rushing (385 yards) while completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,552 yards and 18 touchdowns. He looked comfortable finding his receivers in fall drills.
"When I was getting my very first starts last year, the game was very fast for me," Browning said. "It slowed down over the course of the season, and the team got progressively better. My comfort level now is so much better and I'm much more consistent. I think this team is ready to go."
Browning says the players are correcting each other's mistakes. "The players are almost at a point where we know what went wrong in practice, and we can teach each other without the coaches having to come over and tell us what's wrong," Browning said. "That's a great thing to have out there, and the coaches are comfortable calling anything. We can execute it."
Backup Cody Wells played in several drives against Florida State, which Berry says is going to be the norm.
"It's nothing other than that I think we have a fine backup quarterback," Berry said. "I want to make sure that Cody gets repetitions with the ones all the time. Cody is certainly capable of doing all the things Kolton can do. This helps get him ready in case something happens to Kolton."
Going into fall, it looked liked ULM would return all five starters on the o-line; which it did, in a way. But two true freshmen rose to the starting five in fall camp. The freshmen are LT Joseph Treadwell and RG Ben Risenhoover.
"There weren't a lot of games played collectively in last year's unit, but there wasn't a chance a month ago that a freshman would have been in the two-deep," Berry said. "But to their credit, those guys came in and responded to all the pressures we put on them. We tried to break them to some degree by putting them in really difficult situations, but they've handled it well. They've continued to show out, and there's a huge possibility that we can have two freshmen start in the first game."
In that first game, the rise of the freshmen was no detriment to the team; in fact, Berry credited the starting true freshmen for their poise as well as the rest of the line. Surprisingly, the team’s mistakes came from the older players, who tried to do too much. The mistakes weren’t major, however.
"We didn't have any busted assignments to where you look up and there was nobody around him. Even from an offensive perspective, we picked up their blitzes ... they were just beating us.
So the starting five is LT Treadwell (6-4, 290), LG Josh Allen (6-3, 280), C Ryan McCaul (6-5, 294), an all-SunBelt selection last year, RG Risenhoover (6-1, 284), and RT Anthony Montgomery (6-4, 304).
Running back is thin with sophomore Jyruss Edwards the leading returning rusher at running back. He started four games and ran for 375 yards, 10 fewer than Browning. Centarius Donald is the backup; curiously absent from the two-deep is transfer Mitchell Bailey from Arkansas, who sat out his penalty year in 2010. Donald rushed for 144 yards against Grambling State last week, and was the first Warhawk to top 100 yards in a game since 2008. Edwards tallied 90 in the same game.
ULM returns a solid receiving corps, led by senior Luther Ambrose (65 catches in 2010). True freshman Tyler Cain backs up senior wide receiver Luther Ambrose, and returns punts. Cain (5-8, 179) played runningback in high school. "I think receiver is my natural position," Cain said. ULM sees him as a slot receiver, "He certainly has all those attributes you're looking for to get into space," ULM head coach Todd Berry said, adding, "That position for us is really kind of a hybrid position — a crossover between running back and receiver."
Brent Leonard, Anthony McCall, and Tavarese Maye are the other starters at wideout. Berry singles out Maye, who ran more consistent routes in fall camp. "Tavares Maye has had a great camp, and he is one of those special athletes who can do an awful lot of different things with the ball." Maye already has 10 catches on the year, one for a touchdown.
New to the offense this season, and starting, is junior TE Keavon Milton. Milton starting 10 games last year at defensive end, netting 24 tackles, an interception, and three quarterback hurries. Berry said. "Even the backs and tight ends are catching the ball extremely well."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR TROY REFFETT is pleased with the "retention rate" of certain plays on both sides of the ball throughout training camp. "I think we're also developing a lot more depth," Reffett said. "There's a lot more competition at certain positions out there. I also think we're a little bit faster, as a (defensive) unit," Reffett said. The fall camp was as physical as the coaches could make it, and their efforts bore fruit in the opener against Florida State, where ULM’s defense made a lot of open-field tackles. "We've worked really hard on that," Berry said. "We had a very physical camp, and because we've done a lot of tackling in practice, I knew we would do well."
The standouts on the line are senior defensive end Troy Evans, who missed most of last year with an injury, and senior end Ken Dorsey. Evans had 6.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2009. After moving from linebacker to end last season, Dorsey emerged as a leaders on ULM's defense, earning all-conference recognition. He was fifth in the Sun Belt in tackles-for-loss with 13 and eighth in sacks with 5.0. Evans camped out in the backfield last week against Grambling State, registering five tackles for loss, two of them sacks.
Sophomore Kentarius Caldwell returns inside at nose tackle.
Dorsey and junior linebacker Cameron Blakes combined for 11 sacks last year. Senior linebacker Jason Edwards was the team's No. 1 tackler (75 stops). R.J. Young is the other starting linebacker.
ULM moved senior Darius Prelow into the hybrid linebacker-safety position dubbed "hawk" after last season, because senior Nate Brown was blossoming at safety. Prelow intercepted Florida State in the endzone in the opener—his first big play at the hawk position. The safety snagged a second interception against Grambling State. Isaiah Newsome is the third safety.
Rob'Donovan Lewis and Otis Peterson rotate at one corner, and Vincent Eddie and Tim Taylor rotate at the other corner. Taylor played receiver at ULM since 2007, but sat out much of two seasons with injuries. Taylor had cornerback experience in high school, and Berry converted him to cornerback this offseason. As a corner, Taylor led ULM with nine tackles against Florida State. Berry says,
"We moved him over to shore up that position, and I didn't know if he would be a starter or not, but we promised him he would get a fair chance. He's taken advantage of it."
"I was nervous before the game, but (safety Nate Brown) told me to just hit somebody to calm my nerves, and that helped a lot. I had nerves that first play, but it was just a regular game after that." In the 3-3-5, the corners are often left on islands alone against outside receivers. "I became more confident as the game went on, and I think our whole defense did," Taylor added.
ULM’s punter has one of those college football stories that begs telling. It begins in his freshman year, when Aaron Munoz was a freshman quarterback on the scout team.
"One day before a practice, I was just messing around and kicking the ball," Munoz said. "(ULM coach Todd Berry) saw me, and he told me to try out for [punter] in the spring. I ended up winning it over, and I guess I've maintained it until now."
Munoz averaged 38.6 yards per punt and placed 15 punts inside the 20-yard line with just two touchbacks.
"My first game against Arkansas was pretty nerve-racking, but as the bigger games went on, it doesn't seem like that anymore," Munoz said.
Munoz completed one of three pass attempts in 2010, for 56-yards against Florida Atlantic last season. "I hope we fake some punts. We faked a couple last year, and it's one of the best parts about punting. Berry is an aggressive coach, and he's willing to go for it if he has to."
Prior to TCU's solid victory against Air Force, the ULM game looked increasingly like a trap game for the Frogs. But that prognosis now seems stale, as TCU showed tremendous improvement on defense in Colorado Springs, despite the absence of Tanner Brock. The Frogs' offense was undiminished, despite the absence of Ed Wesley.
So now it appears the typical MWC v. Sun Belt scenario will play out in Fort Worth on Saturday-- the Frogs will win, and that handily. ULM will play the role of the spunky underdog, but is outmatched at every position, and will return to Monroe soundly chastened. TCU 33, ULM 16.
Ezra Hood blogs about all things TCU football at SBNation's Frogs O' War.