Florida International was the blossoming program in the Sun Belt Conference last season, and the Golden Panthers are the preseason pick as conference champions. But Louisiana-Monroe appears to be a program on the come as well.
FIU, which finished 6-2 and won a tiebreaker with Troy for the Sun Belt title last season, was voted first in the coaches preseason poll released Monday, accumulating 75 points, including five of the nine first-place votes.
The Trojans, who have won or tied for the past five Sun Belt titles, were picked to finish second, receiving 66 points and two first-place votes. Though the Warhawks, who tied for fourth at 4-4 last season, didn’t receive any first-place votes, they had the third-highest point total (54), tying with Middle Tennessee.
Those four were followed by Arkansas State, North Texas, Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida Atlantic.
“We have high expectations going into this year,” ULM second-year coach Todd Berry said. “We were very, very young last year and recognized that we couldn’t do everything you’d like to do because you’re not as physically or emotionally developed. We had a lot of young players, and it showed in games at times.”
The Warhawks used 17 freshmen and sophomores as starters at some point last season. ULM finished 5-6 after its lone home loss of the season, 23-22 to ULL in the season finale, prevented the Warhawks from becoming bowl eligible. Another tough loss had come three games earlier in a 42-35 setback in double overtime at Florida International.
“We definitely came close in two games I think we should have won,” quarterback Kolton Browning said. “We were young at the start of the season, but we got a lot better and stronger as a team. We’ve grown closer as a team. We have great expectations for the season.”
Browning is coming off a standout debut season after which he was named the Louisiana Freshman of the Year and All-Sun Belt honorable mention. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,552 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He had a team-high 171 rushes for 385 yards and a team-high-tying four rushing touchdowns. His 2,937 yards of total offense were second-most in school history and his passing yardage was seventh best.
ULM placed four players, all seniors, on the preseason all-conference team: wide receiver Luther Ambrose (St. James High School), offensive lineman Ryan McCaul, defensive lineman Ken Dorsey and defensive back Darius Prelow.
The Warhawks return all five starters on the offensive line, which is anchored by McCaul, who started at center last season. Berry said the line’s experience allowed him to move the players among various positions during the spring, and McCaul could wind up at guard or tackle as Berry looks to put the best five linemen on the field.
Berry said the return of defensive end Troy Evans, who was a preseason all-league pick last season but missed the first eight games and saw limited action in the final four because of a back injury, should be helpful for Dorsey.
“We’re expecting great season out of Ken,” Berry said. “The rest of the team is inspired by the way he plays. He never takes a play off and he should benefit by having Troy Evans on the opposite side because Ken was starting to attract more attention (from blockers) and now he should see more single (blockers).”
The Warhawks had just nine returning starters going into last season.
“We have a lot of answers this year,” Berry said. “We had a lot of questions at this time last year. I’m excited about the buzz in northeastern Louisiana.”
Florida International, which was just 9-27 overall and 7-15 in league play in coach Mario Cristobal’s first three seasons before last season’s breakout, led the way with five players on the all-conference team.
Troy senior wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was named preseason co-offensive player of the year, along with North Texas senior running back Lance Dunbar. The preseason defensive player of the year was Troy junior lineman Jonathan Massaquoi.
ULL’s lone representative on the all-conference team was senior tight end Ladarius Green. The Ragin’ Cajuns and first-year coach Mark Hudspeth will take their turn before the media during Day 2 of the Sun Belt Conference Media Days on Tuesday.
?preseason coaches poll
NEW ORLEANS - The Sun Belt Conference on Monday released its preseason coaches poll selected by the head coach from each school. First place-votes in parenthesis.
1. FIU 75 (5)
2. Troy 66 (2)
T3. Middle Tennessee 54
T3. UL-Monroe 54
5. Arkansas State 49 (1)
6. North Texas 33
7. WKU 28 (1)
8. UL-Lafayette 26
NEW ORLEANS - The Sun Belt Conference on Monday released its preseason all-conference team selected by the head coach and a media representative from each school.
QB - Corey Robinson, Troy, So.
RB - Lance Dunbar, North Texas, Sr.
RB - Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky, Sr.
WR - Dwayne Frampton, Arkansas State, Sr.
WR - T.Y. Hilton, Florida International, Sr.
WR - Luther Ambrose, UL-Monroe, Sr.
TE - Ladarius Green, UL-Lafayette, Sr.
OL - Tom Castilaw, Arkansas State, Sr.
OL - Caylin Hauptmann, Florida International, Jr.
OL - Ryan McCaul, UL-Monroe, Sr.
OL - Matt Tomlinson, North Texas, Sr.
OL - James Brown, Troy, Sr.
OL - Wes Jeffries, Western Kentucky, Sr.
DL - Dorvus Woods, Arkansas State, Sr.
DL - Tourek Williams, Florida International, Jr.
DL - Ken Dorsey, UL-Monroe, Sr.
DL - Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy, Jr.
LB - Demario Davis, Arkansas State, Sr.
LB - Winston Fraser, Florida International, Jr.
LB - Xavier Lamb, Troy, Sr.
DB - Kelcie McCray, Arkansas State, Sr.
DB - Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International, Jr.
DB - Marcus Bartels, Florida Atlantic, Sr.
DB - Darius Prelow, UL-Monroe, Sr.
K - Alan Gendreau, Middle Tennessee, Sr.
P - Mickey Groody, Florida Atlantic, Sr.
RS - T.Y. Hilton, Florida International, Sr.
Co-Offensive Players of the Year
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Florida International, Sr.
Lance Dunbar, RB, North Texas, Sr.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jonathan Massaquoi (Troy, Jr., DL)