The keys to improving on last year's 5-7 record will be surviving the first month of the schedule and finding answers on defense.
In their first three games, the Warhawks will go to Little Rock to play Arkansas, to Auburn, and then host Baylor at home. They finish September at Tulane. If they can get out of that stretch no worse than 1-3, they should go into conference play with a confident outlook. A 2-2 mark would have them virtually giddy.
As for the defense, coach Todd Berry and his staff spent most of the spring taking a close look at many of his younger players, who are going to have to grow up and grow up fast.
The Warhawks held out many true freshmen last year with an eye toward developing them for 2012.
Three sophomores-Otis Peterson at corner, Cordero Smith at safety, and Joey Gautney at end-and a redshirt freshman, Gerrand Johnson at nose tackle-will go into the fall No. 1 on the unit's depth chart.
• Even with starter and leading tackler Jason Edwards gone, linebacker looks to be the strength of the defense. Newcomer Austin Moss has moved into a starting role after his big spring. He emerged No. 1 on the depth chart ahead of returning starter R.J. Young, who was slowed injury in the spring. Cameron Blakes is a returning starter.
• The Warhawks will begin the 2012 season with their usual gauntlet. They open Sept. 8 in Little Rock against Arkansas, which is getting some consideration as a BCS contender, followed by a trip to 2010 national champion Auburn. A home game against Baylor and trip to Tulane wind up the first month. The schedule later features a home game against new Sun Belt Conference member South Alabama on Oct. 27.
Key Questions: ULM spent much of the spring taking long looks at newcomers on both sides of the ball, but the need for some new faces to step up is particularly critical on defense. Some answers in the secondary may not come until freshmen signees report in the fall.
LB Austin Moss-With his prior experience-11 games at Arkansas in 2009 and last year at Navarro JC in Texas-Moss was expected to have an immediate impact, and he didn't disappoint. He goes into the fall as a starter.
NT Gerrand Johnson-Johnson was the only redshirt freshman to earn a No. 1 spot on the depth chart on either defense or offense.
LB DaCorris Ford-Ford has not seen much in the way of playing time for much of his career but came out of the spring as a starter on a deep linebacking corps.
Quote To Note: "We are certainly going to be challenged in the non-conference portion of the schedule, which I think is going to help us once we get into Sun Belt play."-Coach Todd Berry, on the first month of ULM's 2012 schedule.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2012 Outlook: ULM looks to be able to move the football because of its depth and talent at the skill positions on offense. The defense must replace leading tacklers Jason Edwards and Darius Prelow and has some other holes to fill. But if the right answers are found, the Warhawks should contend for the Sun Belt title.
Scouting The Offense: QB Kolton Browning leads a contingent of returnees that includes RBs Jyruss Edwards and Centarius Donald and WRs Brent Leonard, Tavarese Maye, and Colby Harper. Three veteran starters-Josh Allen, Ben Risenhoover, and Jonathan Gill-return up front. Injury problems at tight end hurt last year's running game, but the Warhawks will have veterans Keavon Milton and Kevin Steed back this time.
Scout The Defense: Both ends, a linebacker, and half the secondary must be replaced from a unit that played pretty well for most of the year. The emergence of redshirt freshman Gerrand Johnson at nose tackle has allowed Kentarius Caldwell, who played there last season, to move back to end. LB Austin Moss' play in the spring is key development. Coach Todd Berry likes the speed in the secondary, and the Warhawks are bringing in a big class of defensive backs in their 2012 signing class.
Scouting The Special Teams: PK Justin Manton was only 6-of-14 on field goals last season and only 2-of-10 from beyond 30 yards. The Warhawks are looking for a new punter with sophomore Conner Fryoux the leader going into the fall. Redshirt freshman Caleb Gammel will compete for both positions. Jyruss Edwards (kickoffs) and Tyler Cain (punts) are experienced return men.
LB Jacob Tyson-Tyson is a local product from West Monroe High and should fit in with the Warhawks' 3-3-5 scheme.
DB Tryen Hills-Hills, from Boutte, La., got three stars from Rivals.com. At 6-1, 180, the has the size to cope with bigger receivers.
DB Lenzy Pipkins-Pickens played only one season of high school football, but he broke up seven passes and had an interception for Mansfield (Texas) High. He is an outstanding athlete with good speed who also played basketball in high school.
• C Joseph Allen is moving back to his original position after starting at guard in 2011 because of need here. He had eight starts at center as a true freshman in 2010.
• DE Kentarius Caldwell returns to an outside spot up front after starting 12 games at nose tackle as a sophomore last year.
• OG Elliot Hilliard moves from the defensive line to the offensive interior. He was No. 2 on the depth chart behind returning starter Jonathan Gill coming out of spring.