MONROE, La. (AP) If Louisiana-Monroe coach Matt Viator can once again double the Warhawks' victory total, he'll really be onto something.
Even a 50 percent improvement would do.
ULM won four games last season, but that represented decent progress for a program won just twice in the season before it lured Viator away from the perennial contender he'd built at McNeese State of the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision.
After one season with the Warhawks in the Sun Belt Conference, Viator is confident that the formula he used to win at smaller schools will work at the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision as well.
''I don't think it's any different. It's about relationships and getting the right players in your system and coaches and making all that mesh,'' Viator said, noting that ULM's large percentage of underclassmen last season set up the program to field an experienced team with good chemistry in the future.
''If you look at what we're trying to do, we're trying to build the program back, get the numbers (of experienced starters) back,'' Viator explained. ''It just takes a little time to get that going.''
As for winning the requisite six games to become bowl eligible, the schedule doesn't do the Warhawks any favors, even if it will pad the football budget. There are non-conference road games at Florida State and Auburn. The season opener at on Aug. 30 at Memphis could be challenging as well.
''The schedule is really hard,'' Viator said, but he didn't sound discouraged about the challenges of turning around a struggling program.
''I'm really having a lot of fun with it,'' Viator said. ''I've done it several times on the high school level. I've always enjoyed building a program back. It gets frustrating because you want to win maybe quicker than you can, but it's fun because we have some good kids here.''
Here are some things to know about ULM in 2017
QB HEALTH: Junior QB Garrett Smith has put up big numbers in isolated games but he's trying to come back from a major knee injury that sidelined him much of last season. ''We're trying to see how he's moving and how much confidence he has in that leg, but right now he looks really good,'' Viator said.
The coach also noted that Caleb Evans was ''playing really well'' at the end of last season, adding that it's ''a good competition we're having'' to see who emerges as opening day starter.
PLUGGING HOLES: ULM fielded one of the worst defenses in the nation last season, particularly against the run. The Warhawks allowed 480 yards and 39 points per game, including 260 yards rushing per game. ''Defensively we've made some strides. Our overall team speed will be much better,'' Viator said. ''We didn't run well enough to defend some of the teams we played last year. You have to be able to play in space, be able to run in space. " The anchor of the defense will be middle linebacker David Griffith, a junior who led the team with nearly 80 tackles last season, including three sacks and 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. ULM is also hoping senior defensive end Caleb Tucker will improve the pass rush.
DEEP BACKFIELD: Alabama transfer Derrick Gore joins a running back corps that already includes four other ball carriers - Ben Luckett, Thomas Koufie, Austin Vaughn and Duke Carter - who each turned in 100-yard games last season. ULM rushed for 181 yards per game last season and the running game should remain a strength, particularly with an experienced offensive line coming back.
FAMILIAR TARGETS: ULM's passing game also could be a strength if QB play is solid. The Warhawks' top three receivers - Xavier Brown, Marcus Green and R.J. Turner - are all back.
TURNOVER PRONE: The Warhawks were minus-11 in turnovers last season. Simply improving ball security could go a long way to making ULM more competitive.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25