(Part 9 of a 12-part Sun Belt Conference football preview series)

Entering their second year under coach Matt Viator, the ULM Warhawks have 53 returning lettermen, including 16 starters (7 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist) in preseason camp.

ULM (4-8, 3-5) doubled its victory total in Viator's inaugural season, including back-to-back Sun Belt Conference wins over South Alabama (42-35, OT) and Georgia State (37-23) in Weeks 9-10.

ULM ranked 110th nationally in scoring (23.3 yards per game), 57th in rushing (181.3 yards per game), 99th in passing (192 ypg) and 100th in total yardage (373.3 ypg), while finishing 122nd with a negative-11 turnover margin. Part of the struggles can be attributed to a rash of injuries, which forced the Warhawks to use three different starting quarterbacks.

Junior Garrett Smith was limited to six starts, with sophomores Caleb Evans (4 starts) and Will Collins (2 starts) filling in.

Smith completed 103-of-179 passes for 1,237 yards with 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Evans was 76-of-144 for 834 yards with 4 TDs and 6 picks, while Collins was 19-of-40 for 233 yards, 2 TDs and 3 INTs.

ULM upped its production in the rushing game by nearly 79 yards per game in 2016. Junior Ben Luckett (120 carries, 450 yards, 5 TDs) is joined on the committee by senior Thomas Koufie (80-426-4) and sophomores Austin Vaughn (48-268-2) and Duke Carter IV (85-281-1).

Three of the top four receivers return in juniors Marcus Green (36 receptions, 344 yards, 4 TDs), Xavier Brown (25-425-4, 17 yards per catch) and RJ Turner (23-433-3, 18.8 ypc).

Junior left guard Frank Sutton Jr., sophomore right tackle Eastwood Thomas and sophomore right guard Devin Jackson Jr. are back up front. Sophomore Keaton Baggs, who missed virtually the entire 2016 season with an injury, sophomore Trace Ellison and juco transfer Ja'Quarius Savage are battling for playing time at tackle. Others vying for playing time include sophomore center Bobby Reynolds, redshirt freshman center Noah Ramsey and redshirt freshman guard T.J. Fiailoa.

After enduring the growing pains of a young defense last season, the Warhawks are looking for dramatic improvement. ULM ranked 122nd in scoring (39.1 ppg), 125th against the run (260.3 ypg), 55th vs. the pass (220.1 ypg) and 119th in total yardage (480.3 ypg).

The linebackers should be the strength of the unit as junior David Griffith (78 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 4 sacks) and sophomores Chase Day (70 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2 sacks) and Cortez Sisco Jr. (60 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack) ranked 1-2-4 on the team in tackles.

Senior end Caleb Tucker (50 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks), sophomore tackles Jaylen Veasley (19 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack) and junior tackle Shaquille Warren (25 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack) are all back up front. Among the others in the defensive line picture are junior nose tackle (18 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack) and sophomore end Donald Louis Jr. (14 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks).

A trio of holdovers — senior cornerback Juwan Offray (23 tackles, 1 TFL, 6 pass breakups), junior strong safety Wesley Thompson (56 tackles, 1.5 TFL) and junior free safety Marcus Hubbard (33 tackles, 4.5 TFL) — head a deep secondary. Sophomore free safety Nick Ingram (55 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack), junior college transfers JJ Dallas and Rhoy Williams, and true freshman Austin Hawley are also in the mix.

Junior Craig Ford was 9-of-13 with a long of 47 in the field goal department, including 3-of-7 from 40-plus yards. Sophomore Harrison Heim, a transfer from Southeastern Louisiana, assumes the punting duties.

McCray returned 22 kickoffs for a 22.5-yard norm, while Green ran back 10 punts at a 9.4-yard clip.

2017 ULM SCHEDULE

DATE OPPONENT TIME

Aug. 31 (Thurs.) at Memphis 8:00

Sept. 9 at Florida State 6:00

Sept. 16 Southern Miss 6:00

Sept. 23 at Louisiana-Lafayette* TBA

Sept. 30 Coastal Carolina* 6:00

Oct. 7 at Texas State* TBA

Oct. 14 Georgia State* 4:00

Oct. 21 at South Alabama* TBA

Oct. 28 at Idaho* TBA

Nov. 4 Appalachian State* 2:00

Nov. 18 at Auburn TBA

Nov. 25 Arkansas State* 2:00