One if by land, two if by air.
Or is it the other way around?
Either way, football coaches at all levels are constantly working to maximize the talent of their top players. Sometimes it means asking a player to switch from one position to another, or to play roles from two positions at once.
Just ask UW-River Falls senior Michael Diggins. He ranks in the top 25 in all of NCAA Division III football in all-purpose yardage through six games. Diggins, a running back, is averaging 160 yards per game when combining rushing and receiving numbers.
Or ask UW-Whitewater’s Jarrod Ware. His numbers aren’t as gaudy, but the former running back leads the Warhawks in receiving and had a key 53-yard carry in last week’s victory over UW-La Crosse.
Diggins, Ware and their teammates will cross paths at noon Saturday in River Falls in a Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game.
“Ultimately, as a coach, your big objective is to find your 11 best players and get them on the field, whatever that means,” UW-Whitewater coach Kevin Bullis said. “You’re really fortunate when you have guys who have that versatility like a Jarrod Ware, where he can line up as a tailback or line up at as a slot receiver.
“Besides being a very good athlete, you’ve got to find a very intelligent young man that can manage that, as well.”
Ware ranked second on the Warhawks last season with 419 yards rushing, despite playing just six games. He averaged five yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. He caught just six passes for 30 yards.
That didn’t stop the UW-W staff from envisioning Ware, a junior from Bradley, Illinois, as a potential pass-catcher.
“A huge piece of it is being able to sit down with a young man and being able to present to him how you see his role fitting into your program and your plans,” Bullis said. “We felt very good about our depth at the running back position. ... He was a very good running back, but we also saw his skill set and ability to line up in the slot—to stretch teams horizontally as well as vertically.”
In 2017, Ware leads the team in both receptions (19) and receiving yards (258) and has caught one touchdown pass.
He’s carried the ball just eight times, but it was his 53-yard run to open a third-quarter drive against La Crosse that paved the way for Drew Patterson’s touchdown run that gave the Warhawks the lead for good.
Diggins, conversely, does his damage out of the tailback position for River Falls. He leads the WIAC in rushing with 804 rushing yards in six games. He averages 5.5 yards per carry and has scored eight rushing touchdowns.
But Diggins can also snag passes out of the backfield, and he’s tied for the team-lead with 23 receptions that have gone for 156 yards and a score.
“He’s a very good runner, but a different type of runner than Jarrod. He’s a more physical runner but has an ability to be quick in space,” Bullis said. “They’re able to throw the ball to him out of the backfield, whether it’s a hot read or dumping it to him out of the backfield or getting the ball to him in screens.
“You’re not going to put a zero behind his name statistically ... but what you’ve got to do is minimize the big-play ability.”
Gentile out for season
The Warhawks pulled a bit of a surprise move in starting sophomore quarterback Merrick Gentile over junior Cole Wilber last week.
They eventually gave both quarterbacks a look, before Gentile was injured.
Bullis announced Wednesday that Gentile is out for the season.
“He’s season’s done. That’s always a tough thing,” Bullis said. “We had the ability to play two guys, really all season. We played Merrick in some wildcat, and our idea this past week was to get him some snaps other than wildcat.
“Our primary thing is Cole coming in and having a fantastic day and fantastic week of preparation.
A battle of what-ifs
These teams feel each other’s pain.
UW-Whitewater enters the season with a 3-3 overall mark and at 2-1 in WIAC play. Two of the Warhawks’ three losses have come by eight points or less.
UW-River Falls is 3-3 overall and 1-2 in league play. All three of the losses came by 10 points or less, including by four to Coe College and by five at UW-Stout last week.