USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
By the time his career ends, Pete Thomas will have made starts under center for three different Football Bowl Subdivision programs: Colorado State, North Carolina State and Louisiana-Monroe.
Two schools? That's nothing. Quarterbacks have been transferring since time immemorial: Troy Aikman started at Oklahoma before heading to UCLA, for example. In recent years, Ryan Mallett began his career at Michigan, didn't like the direction of Rich Rodriguez's offense and left for Arkansas; Russell Wilson started for N.C. State before spending his last season at Wisconsin.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Sun Belt
But three schools? Only one other notable quarterback comes close: Jeff George started at Purdue as a freshman, left after a coaching change – like Mallett, he didn't like the new offense – and looked toward Miami (Fla.), only to back out of his commitment after failing to be assured of the starting role. George ended up at Illinois, and the rest is history.
Starting at three different FBS schools is an achievement made possible only by the NCAA's graduate-transfer policy, which allowed Thomas to hop from Raleigh to Monroe without losing a season of eligibility. Will the third time be the charm for this former four-star prospect?
Well, it's either in 2014 or not at all – because there's no tomorrow for Thomas, now on his last shot at fulfilling that four-star potential. Let's remember he arrives at the right time: Todd Berry and ULM desperately need a quarterback.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
As it is, based on ULM's talent and experience and the direction of the program, anything less than seven wins would be a major surprise. Getting back to eight wins should be the program's goal, and an extremely attainable one at that. Even if the final record remains the same, I think this is a stronger team than last year's version.
In a nutshell: Disappointing? Yeah, a little bit. ULM did beat Wake Forest, though the Deacons were a mess, and capped the year with a satisfying rivalry win against Louisiana-Lafayette. But the Warhawks also failed to sniff Oklahoma and Baylor, losing both by a combined 104-7, and suffered four additional losses by 17 or more points. It was a struggle on defense. Five opponents rushed for at least 200 yards; six averaged at least 5.9 yards per play; three pulled the 200-yard double-dip – rushing for at least 200 yards, passing for at least 200 yards. But the steepest decline came on offense, where ULM slid from third in the Sun Belt Conference in scoring – and 31st in the FBS – to seventh, next-to-last, ahead of only Georgia State.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
High point: Beating ULL in the finale. There are worse ways to develop some confidence before the offseason.
Low point: Uncompetitive defeats to Tulane, Western Kentucky, Arkansas State and South Alabama.
Tidbit: The Warhawks' last two teams are the first in the program's FBS history – beginning in 1994 – to post back-to-back non-losing seasons. In all, the 14 victories since the start of 2012 are the program's most during a two-year span since going 19-6 from 1992-93.
Tidbit (Heisman edition): ULM has won 12 of its last 14 games when scoring 27 or more points, a streak dating to a 42-14 win against Middle Tennessee State on Nov. 12, 2011. The two losses have come against major-conference competition, and by less than a touchdown: Auburn (31-28) on Sept. 15, 2012, and Baylor (47-42) on Sept. 21, 2012.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Atlanta Hawks (Atlanta seasons only)
1. Dominique Wilkins
2. Lou Hudson
3. Joe Johnson
4. John Drew
5. Kevin Willis
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Don't question the physical gifts: Pete Thomas can make every throw in the book, though making the right throw – and there's clearly a huge difference – has long been an issue. Thomas has struggled thus far in his career translating his skill set into production, often causing self-inflicted wounds in a parade of mental missteps; at N.C. State, for example, he tossed nine interceptions against four touchdowns before quickly falling out of favor with Dave Doeren and the Wolfpack's new coaching staff. At ULM, however, Thomas is given fresh life and a fresh start, not to mention a strong tutor in Berry – a coach who transformed Kolton Browning from up-and-down frustration to one of the Sun Belt's best quarterbacks. Doing the same with Thomas might be a stretch, given the shortened timeline before the opener, but look for Thomas to quickly open up the full breakdown of ULM's offense in the passing game; he's easily an upgrade over the holdovers, for starters, and could fulfill his promise in a friendly system. He's one of the more intriguing transfers in the FBS.
Thomas will enjoy playing with these receivers. One, junior Rashon Ceaser (65 receptions for 964 yards), is already one of the best in the conference: Ceaser excelled last fall – particularly down the stretch – despite landing little assistance from his supporting cast and even as ULM dealt with injuries under center, so he could significantly increase his production with the strong-armed transfer under center – perhaps finding lanes downfield, stretching the borders of this offense. Ceaser does need some help, however, so keep an eye on how senior Kenzee Jackson (25 for 271) and sophomore Ajalen Holley (21 for 266) contribute against single coverage. Keep another eye on the newcomers: ULM's two-deep will include at least two redshirt freshmen – De'Vonte Haggerty and Andrew Ricks the most likely to play – and at least one JUCO transfer, perhaps three-star prospect Dylan Bossier. I like the tight end combination of Harley Scioneaux and Alex Osborne, with Scioneaux an asset in the running game – and in the red zone – and Osborne a potential weapon in the intermediate passing game.
The running game needs to step forward – with some help from the big linemen up front. The search for more consistency on the ground takes added importance with Thomas under center; he's not overly mobile, for one, and the Warhawks need production on the ground to push defenders out of the box and open lanes downfield. While the Warhawks lose Jryuss Edwards, experienced backs Centarius Donald (433 yards) and DeVontae McNeal (205 yards) shouldn't struggle recouping that lost yardage. The key might be the play of junior Tyler Cain, who could grant this running game a degree of explosiveness in a change-of-pace role. A similar spot could exist for sophomore Nathan Meadors, who got his feet wet in limited touches a season ago.
Defense: Troy Reffett's unorthodox 3-3-5 scheme needs to rebound. With five starters among the front six back in the fold, Reffett can turn his attention to the secondary: ULM's defensive backfield needs to relocate its stride after a decidedly up-and-down 2013 season. What's of specific concern is the hole at safety, where the Warhawks look to replace Isaiah Newsome – the team's most disruptive defensive back – with one of three raw underclassmen. As of the start of summer workouts, sophomore Justin Backus held the lead in the race for the starting role. Fellow sophomore Tre' Hunter and redshirt freshmen Roland Jenkins still have enough time to push Backus out of the lineup.
What should aid the new starter's transition – let's just assume it'll be Backus – are two experienced fellow safeties and a solid number of options at cornerback. Along the back end, ULM also returns junior Mitch Lane (53 tackles) and senior Cordero Smith (63 tackles), the unquestioned starters, as well as backups Junior Williams and Bryce Ray. Reffett could also shift sophomore Lenzy Pipkins from cornerback back to safety, where he spent last season; Pipkins is viewed as a starter on the outside, however. There's a clear top three at cornerback: Pipkins, junior Trey Caldwell and senior Rob'Donovan Lewis. What the Warhawks need is a boost from at least one of three redshirt freshmen jostling for roles in the rotation – they're promising, if raw, and Reffett has does a nice job developing talent at the position.
The linebacker corps is very solid despite the loss of Cameron Blakes, last year's leading tackler. Despite losing Blakes, ULM's production at the position should improve if junior Michael Johnson adapts to his full-time role in the starting lineup; Johnson spent last year mostly in reserve, stepping in for three starts, and fared solidly when given the opportunity. Why is Johnson important? Because Reffett and ULM know junior Hunter Kissinger (73 tackles, 3 interceptions) and senior Ray Stovall (49 tackles, 11.0 for loss) are going to deliver: Kissinger and Stovall are steady, reliable and experienced, giving the defense two clear leaders among this seasoned front six.
Nothing will change up front: Darius Lively (25 tackles) and Joey Gautney (33 tackles, 6.5 for loss) step back into starting jobs at end, flanking junior nose tackle Gerrand Johnson (56 tackles, 11.0 for loss) – the latter a strong all-conference contender. What might separate this year's line from last season's version – a group that ran off the rails against the run – is the increased degree of depth and athleticism in reserve. Depth in the middle won't be an issue, not with senior Malcolm Edmond back in the fold, but the Warhawks' Jacob Tyson, Diontre Thomas, Lorenzo Jackson and Jackson Randle have the talent to add burst and production in a smaller sample size. This younger group has much to prove – and must develop to take charge in 2015 – but the potential is there for a distinctly improved rotation.
Special teams: Ceaser doubles as one of the Sun Belt's most effective punt returners. On kickoffs, it's only logical that Cain would reclaim some of the return duties he held in 2012, his last season of action with the Warhawks. Senior Justin Manton is a huge weapon as a punter but not trustworthy in the kicking game; he still seems set to handle both tasks this fall, as he did a season ago.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: It's not as much about the starting lineup – which seems set, or nearing that point – as overall production: ULM's front was subpar in protection and extremely inefficient in the ground game, leaving the Warhawks among the bottom third in the Sun Belt in both sacks allowed and rushing yards per game. With a new quarterback under center, it's vital that ULM land a stiffer, fenced-in mentality on passing downs; when it comes first and second down, this line simply must land more push off the line of scrimmage. While only two starters must be replaced – at left guard and center – the staff spent the spring shuffling responsibilities among the returning core. Senior Joseph Treadwell moves from left to right tackle, a shift that pushes senior Jeremy Burton into the top spot on the blind side. Senior Ben Risenhoover has flopped from right to left guard, replacing Jon Fisher. With Treadwell on the strong side, senior Demiere Burkett will move inside to right guard. That leaves only center, where former backup Colby Mitchell, a junior, steps up a peg to replace Josh Allen. Experience? ULM has that in spades; four seniors are in the starting lineup, as noted. It's on this group to deliver, and much rides in the balance.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Louisiana-Lafayette: The Sun Belt title goes through the Ragin' Cajuns. That one comes at home, one of five dates in the friendly confines, but the road slate is difficult: LSU, Arkansas State, Kentucky and Texas A&M, along with three winnable matchups. Though the non-conference record shouldn't be pretty – the drawback of playing three SEC foes – the Warhawks should have little difficulty dealing with the Sun Belt's bottom half.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The Warhawks are a difficult team to peg. It's easy to place ULM in the top half of the Sun Belt, if only by default; the conference is anything but deep, thanks to a few recent additions, and ULM Is leaps and bounds ahead of Georgia State, Idaho and New Mexico State, to name a few. But does ULM have what it takes to challenge the league's top half – Arkansas State, Troy, South Alabama and, of course, rival Louisiana-Lafayette? And where do the Warhawks slot nationally, if we compare this roster, talent level and experience to programs also hunting for six wins and a spot in the postseason? This is an interesting team; it's also a group that's hard to lock down.
I'm a little cautious. Begin by considering the areas that will decide the Warhawks' season. The first is quarterback play: Thomas is a really nice addition, but he'll need to prove those days of errors and missteps are a thing of the past if this offense plans on stepping forward. The line is experienced – those four senior starters – but a question mark, due to last year's unproductivity. Tied into the line is the play of the backfield and running game, which must produce to give Thomas and this passing game a boost. Defensively, the Warhawks' degree of success inside and out of Sun Belt play hinges largely on the pass rush and the secondary; there's no reason to expect a huge leap in production, though the group seems solidly built.
So ULM seems stuck in the middle, separated from the potential for four or seven wins by the slimmest of margins – seven wins if Thomas delivers, for example, but four wins if he falls flat. My take? The Warhawks seem a touch more likely to fall short of six wins than reach bowl eligibility. Part of that stems from the schedule, which does add four major-conference programs in addition to the Sun Belt slate. A six-win finish would demand a strong start against teams like Arkansas State and Troy, and I wonder if this slightly retooled team hits its stride before midseason.
Dream season: ULM tops Arkansas State, Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette to claim an unshared Sun Belt title. Everything clicks, basically.
Nightmare season: The Warhawks beat only Idaho, Georgia Southern and New Mexico State.
Who's No. 86? This team is 6-8 in its history when either scoring or allowing 36 points.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014