Warhawks not conceding anything
They may have a new leader, but the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater remains the team that everybody in NCAA Division III football is hunting.
The Warhawks won their second straight and sixth national championship in eight years last December. And they start their 2015 campaign on Sept. 12 at Belhaven, Miss., with college football's longest winning streak at 32 games. They are ranked in the top three of three preseason polls, including No. 1 by D3football.com.
UW-Whitewater must replace such standouts as quarterback Matt Behrendt, wide receivers Jake Kumerow and Justin Howard, defensive back Brady Grayvold, defensive back and Delavan-Darien alum Marcus McLin and defensive lineman Mykaell Bratchett.
But UW-W's biggest loss was head coach Lance Leipold, who accepted the job at the University of Buffalo after his Warhawk teams went 108-6 during his tenure.
Kevin Bullis is the new man in charge, moving up after serving as defensive running game coordinator and defensive line coach during the 2014 season. He was defensive coordinator at UW-River Falls from 1995 to 2007 before joining the Warhawks.
There will be new faces on the coaching staff and in the locker room. However, Bullis said at Monday's media day that the program's foundation won't change, and neither will the expectations. But he's not worried about the pressure of replacing Leipold or duplicating any records.
“Lance offered me a job in Buffalo, and it was tough to turn him down,” Bullis said. “But Division III is where I've always envisioned myself being. I asked myself back in December how would I handle this, and I said, 'Wait a minute.' We never said our goal was to win a national championship. They are part of the big picture, but they are the byproduct of what we're focused on, and that's getting better each day and each practice, and that takes the pressure off.”
While they only began working in pads this past week, Bullis was excited about the early results. He said getting his coordinators and staff in place before spring ball in April was a big plus for the coaches and players and helped make the transition much easier, and having a talented roster doesn't hurt either.
“We were able to get organized instead of scrambling and avoided a lot of stress, and it allowed us to build chemistry with each other and with the players,” he said. “We've got a senior class of 20-plus players, and having seven starters back on offense and seven back on defense was a huge relief in maintaining the systems we have in place.”
The Warhawks have won nine of the last 10 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships and are the favorite again, returning more than enough quality pieces in all three facets to be a postseason force.
That starts with the explosive and multitalented offense, which returns all five linemen from the national title game plus Lucas Skibba, a preseason All-America choice who received a medical hardship after suffering a season-ending injury in camp last year.
They must protect prospective starting signal caller Chris Nelson, a Wilmot H.S. graduate who redshirted at D-II Northern Michigan in 2012 before sitting behind Behrendt the last two years.
The biggest holes are finding guys to replace top receivers Kumerow and Howard, the latter who led the team with 84 catches for 1,167 yards and 12 scores. Kumerow, who signed with Cincinnati as an undrafted rookie free agent, missed several outings with a bad ankle but managed 66 grabs for 1,116 yards and 14 touchdowns.
However, the Warhawks do have their top two ball carriers back in Dennis Moore and Jordan Ratliffe, who accumulated 1,107 and 950 yards, respectively.
Guard Conner Peters and receiver Joe Worth, both seniors, are confident the unit will score plenty of points.
“We're intact and have got a lot of experience … some guys have played 30 to 40 games,” Peters said of the O-line. “We've got nine or 10 guys who can step up and play, so the future looks bright for us.”
“We have some new faces in the group, but we have experience with me and Marcus Hudson,” said Worth, who is Nelson's roommate. “We have a good freshman class coming in with talent and athleticism … they have to work on techniques, their releases and routes. And we have a transfer, Connor Simpson, from Washington State.”
Simpson, who hails from Libertyville, Ill., was a redshirt last year for the Cougars and thus has four years of eligibility left.
“We still run a pro-style offense, but with some tweaks,” Worth said of new coordinator Craig Smith, who most recently coached at UW-Oshkosh. “We still use a lot of shifts and motion, and our running game is pretty much the same. So it's mostly what we've done the past couple of years.
“Chris has been the backup for two years, so he knows the offense like the back of his hand,” Worth added. “He's an athlete and a playmaker, and he's confident.”
Hudson is a sophomore from DDHS who saw action in nine games, catching 14 passes, the third most among returning players, for 170 yards (12.1) with two scores.
The defense returns a strong linebacker corps, which includes Janesville Craig junior Paul Foster, and a deep front four that will lead a defense that lost three of its four starters from the secondary, including McLin.
Safety Ryan Winske said the secondary would get better with playing time.
“It's kinda funny … a couple of years ago our linebackers were young and inexperienced, but now they're the anchors,” Winske said. “But I'm excited about the athletes we have in the secondary and I have faith in all of them.”
Zach Franz echoed those sentiments about the guys upfront.
“We're looking for more depth, but we're looking pretty good,” Franz said. “We've got a lot of guys stepping up. It's a matter of coaching them up with better technique, and hopefully we'll see good things.”
Junior Trevor Boyle of Janesville Parker belongs to that group, finishing with three total tackles and a sack in spot duty during 12 games last fall.
Special teams should continue to be a strength, because punter Lake Bachar and kicker Will Meyer return. However, the Warhawks must find a player(s) to replace Howard, who served double duty in the return game on punts and kickoffs.
Regardless, this bunch remains hungry and wants to carry on the team's decade of success, and that starts with the daily mindset that permeates the program.
“Change happens, and we've had some new terminology during the transition, but our values are the pillars of the program,” Winske said. “Coaches preach to us all the time what Warhawk football means. Day in and day out, it's about doing things right, doing whatever we can to get better and buying into the process.”