The central theme being delivered from the microphones at the UW-Whitewater football media day Wednesday was a familiar one: The Warhawks have an abundance of depth built on the dominance from last year’s team.
The confidence in their depth is a product of the 2018 reclamation project which culminated in an NCAA Division III semifinals appearance.
Whether looking at the offensive line, the defensive line, the receiving corps or anywhere else, it’s a familiar story: UW-Whitewater likes its depth.
When discussing the defensive line, fifth-year head coach Kevin Bullis (44-7) talked about the depth that developed when the Warhawks were able to run away from teams by an average of four possessions per game last season. Behind All-American Harry Henschler and second-team all-WIAC defensive tackle David O’Gorman blossomed Jordan Brand, Mackenzie Balanganayi and Beloit Turner graduate Justin Hansen, among others.
In the secondary, the Warhawks have senior safeties Garrett Purdy and captain Nate Tranel anchoring the backside. But Mark McGrath is a name Bullis has been excited about throughout August.
“A name that people learned a little bit last year and people are going to hear a lot more this year is Mark McGrath,” Bullis said.
Earlier in August, Bullis referred to McGrath as one of the most athletic defensive backs UW-Whitewater has had. Now, he gets to show it.
“That’s really the thing with most of those guys,” Bullis said. “They were in a backup role or a rotational role where they were getting 30 snaps in a game or 25 snaps. Now they’re going to get the lion’s share.”
Senior running back Ronny Ponick, one of four captains who spoke to the media Wednesday, offered a line to describe both the quarterback and running back rooms.
First, the running backs: “We have about six (running backs) who could probably play the position. It’s a good problem to have as far as our offensive coordinator’s standpoint. Coach (Peter) Jennings is really excited about the guys that we have back there.”
Ponick and junior Alex Peete will be joined by shifty athlete Jarrod Ware as a trio that has separated itself from the rest of the group. Leading the next echelon of backs is former Fort Atkinson athlete Preston Strasburg, who saw playing time as the third back last year following Ware’s broken foot in Week 3.
As for the quarterbacks vying to replace Cole Wilber, who started games each of the last three years, Ponick revisited the theme.
“It’s highly competitive,” he said. “There are six or seven guys that could potentially be our guy. It’s so close in practice, and you see a lot of guys making mature decisions out there.”
Bullis later said he has narrowed that group down to juniors Zach Oles and Max Meylor.
Trusting the process
While those backups were biding their time, the coaching staff was urging them to trust the process—a process that served previous Warhawks Nate Trewyn and Jake Kumerow well.
Kumerow and Trewyn will learn their initial fates for the 2019 NFL season when rosters are cut down to 53 players for the start of the regular season. Kumerow is competing for a wide receiver spot with the Green Bay Packers, while Trewyn is competing for a spot as a center with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Signs earlier this weekend pointing to both players earning roster spots.
“Obviously we take a lot of ownership in it because they’re Warhawks,” Bullis said. “I think it’s awesome, but I’m still going to be very candid when we recruit. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of our players are going to be teachers and businessmen and doctors and lawyers and firemen.
“They (Trewyn and Kumerow) have an unbelievable commitment to their process. The grind of what they do, they’re so locked into that process and are chasing dreams for all of us right now.”
Few Warhawks had a better front seat to the process Trewyn used than preseason All-American left guard Quinn Meinerz, who joins Ponick, Tranel and linebacker Jacob Erbs as a captain.
“It shows that if you’re willing to put in the time and the work that good things will happen,” Meinerz said. “That’s what this group of guys in the offensive line has really been willing to do, is put in that hard work. We see a guy in our room who is at the next level, so it’s just a matter of putting in that hard work.”
The graduation of Henschler and middle linebacker Bryce Leszczynski left a void for the Warhawks. But Bullis said the heirs to the leadership throne are prepared to carry the torch.
“A year ago, the leadership on that side of the ball was utterly amazing,” Bullis said. “The thing that Harry and Bryce did, which is something we work very hard with our guys on, is it’s one thing to be a leader on a team, but it’s another to be a leader that develops leaders. That is preparing them.”
Erbs and Tranel described being a captain for the Warhawks as an honor. Ponick said it was a great opportunity. Meinerz indicated it was important not to change anything just because of a title.
Influence of siblings
There are four pairs of Warhawks who share last names.
There are the Feeneys—Michael a sophomore running back and Nolan an offensive lineman; the Kolbes—Cameron a sophomore defensive lineman and Carson an offensive lineman; the Nelsons—Luke a freshman linebacker and Matt a sophomore quarterback; and the Ponicks—the aforementioned Ronny and sophomore Ryan.
Ronny Ponick emerged throughout the season as a bowling ball running back from Stanley-Boyd and solidified himself as a big-time fixture in the playoffs with a pair of drives that he was the only player to touch the ball as UW-Whitewater exclaimed its dominance running the ball right down the middle.
With his little brother around, Ponick is trying to act like it’s all the same, because that’s what drew his brother to transfer from UW-Eau Claire to UW-Whitewater.
“Seeing how successful we were and how much fun I was having was a huge motivator for him to come here,” Ronny Ponick said. “It is bittersweet. We do harp on each other quite a bit, but we get the job done and I’m happy that he’s here.”
It’s impossible to mention brotherly relationships without pointing out the return of a healthy Derek Kumerow this season. Kumerow is the younger brother of Jake Kumerow.
The Warhawks open with Senior Day on Saturday against former UW-Whitewater offensive coordinator Stan Zweifel and his Dubuque Spartans.