After winning just one game last season and being outscored 181-28 by LSU, Ole Miss and Auburn in the three money games of the year, Weatherbie says he's looking forward to seeing how far his team and program has come since last season.
"It definitely helps all programs to be able to play an opponent of this magnitude," Weatherbie says. "They have some great players. Cadillac Williams, coming into his senior year, is a great player. Ronnie Brown is another running back they have as well. They are stacked there at the running back position.
"At quarterback Jason Campbell, a senior coming back, is a good player for their style also. It's going to be fun going into Auburn. I like going in as an underdog into a stadium with 85,000 or 90,000 people. It will be a great opportunity to check us out and give us a good measuring stick for our program to see where we are at this time."
He will get his first look at just how far his team has come when the Indians travel to Auburn this Saturday for the season opener for both teams. Last season the Tigers crushed ULM 73-7 and it could have been worse, but Weatherbie says this game is one he can use as a measuring stick and he feels like his team can match up with anyone provided they play up to their capabilities.
"We just have to go in and play our game," Weatherbie says. "We have to play the way we're capable of playing. Last year is last year, this year is this year. It's two different football teams, two different years. We have to go in and play the way this football team is capable of playing and we'll have an opportunity to play with anybody in the country."
Carnell Williams breaks a long TD run against the Indians last season in Auburn's 73-7 rout.
Auburn fans will notice a big difference for the Indians this season when quarterback Steven Jyles is taking the snaps under center. Absent from last year's game because of a death in the family, the 6-1, 191 sophomore brings a different attitude to the ULM team and is a dangerous player both in and out of the pocket. After just two years he is already fourth on the all-time passing list at ULM. As a sophomore he threw for 2,112 yards and completed 55.8 percent of his passes.
A new target has emerged from the ranks to provide Jyles with a big-play threat on the perimeter. Return specialist Charles Estes has taken hold at wide receiver heading into the 2004 season. After averaging 27.4 yards per return last season, Weatherbie says that Estes' abilities give his team a boost on the offensive side of the ball now that he's settled in at wide receiver.
"He was the ninth-leading kickoff returner in the country last year and we're expecting him to improve upon that," Weatherbie says. "He can give us some great field position there, but also as a wide receiver. A year ago he was trying to learn the system. He had only been here a short period of time. This is a different system, a little more player friendly to learn. He's had spring and fall. We expect some great things out of him, not only returning kicks, but as a wide receiver."
Defensively, the Indians are led by powerful linebacker John Winchester. The 6-3, 246-pound former defensive back was second on the team in tackles last season and had three games with more than 10 stops. He says that Auburn presents a physical challenge to the defense, one that he got to see up close and personal last season when Williams ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries.
"They are a power football team," Winchester says of Auburn. "They want to run it right at you and they're going to challenge us to see what we've got. They're not going to shy away from us. They're not going to do trick stuff--they might, but they are a power team. They're a good challenge for our defense.
"He's a good player," Winchester says of Williams. "Of course he's ranked high in the ratings. Carnell or Cadillac or whatever they call him is a gifted athlete. He's one of the top rated running backs in the country. He runs hard and has a great offensive line in front of him that helps him out."
With the memories of last season's crushing defeat still lingering, Winchester says that he and his teammates are focused on coming in and putting up a better fight in 2004. Despite losing by 66 points, he says the experience is one that he cherishes each time the Indians get to play on a bigger stage such as Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"I think those games stand out more," Winchester notes. "You look forward to playing those bigger games in those bigger stadiums. The competition is a lot better and you get a chance to shine in front of 90,000 people. It's more to look forward to than a regular game."