Kevin Bullis dug deep into his memory Tuesday.
He recalled a time when he was out in his backyard, grilling and celebrating coaching a college football team to a victory earlier in the day, when his neighbor approached.
He asked me, “Have you guys started your season yet?”
Bullis didn’t provide an exact date, but that situation certainly occurred more than a decade ago, because has been at UW-Whitewater since 2008. He started out as an assistant, and now he’s entering his fourth year as the program’s head coach.
“Here, people know you’ve had your first game. People know you’ve started camp,” Bullis said during his portion of the team’s media day. “People know, and that, to me, is beautiful. It’s awesome.”
It’s also what gives Bullis and his Warhawks the feeling they’ve got something to prove heading into this season.
UW-Whitewater finished just 7-3 a year ago. For most programs, the word “just” would not be included in front of a 7-3 record.
But this is not most programs. The Warhawks’ seven victories ago marked just the second time since 2004 that the team finished with fewer than nine wins.
UW-W also went 7-3 in 2012, which was also the only other year it didn’t make the NCAA Division III postseason since 2004, and it has won six national championships during that span.
“Seven and three is not satisfactory to anybody here, that I can promise you,” Bullis said. “Being here and being part of that standard is so cool, because there are places that don’t have that standard.
“I think our lack of discipline last year caused us not only to lose three games but to not play to our standard of play. Because there were times we won games but did not play to our standard of play.
“We’ve made our corrections,” Bullis added.
A slow start to the season cost the Warhawks a year ago. They started just 1-3 before winning their final six Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference games.
Bullis said he ultimately shoulders the blame for the team’s three losses and he was not interested in making excuses. But it is no secret the Warhawks were lacking in experience as they opened the 2017 campaign.
The same cannot be said in 2018. UW-W officially returns 10 of 11 defensive starters from last season, though the one non-returner was injured for half of last season, so just about everyone is back. And six starters are back on offense, including senior quarterback Cole Wilber.
“On defense, we return a lot of veterans, where a year ago at this time, we were a really immature defense,” Bullis said. “It really showed early on in the season for us.
“You’ve got a pretty veteran-laden group, and they’re definitely starting where they left off, which is playing extremely physical defense.”
The Warhawks allowed just over a touchdown per game (7.83 points) in their final five games. They allowed 25 points per game over their first four contests.
Expect that defense to set the tone for a team out to prove something in 2018.
The season begins Sept. 1 at Dubuque.
It’s safe to guess Bullis’ neighbors in Whitewater already know that.
Oshkosh the favorite
UW-Oshkosh, which went undefeated in WIAC play and advanced to the Division III national semifinals, was picked as the preseason favorite to be the WIAC champion in a poll of the league’s coaches and sports information directors released Monday.
Whitewater was picked to finish second, followed by UW-Platteville and UW-La Crosse.
Jennings takes offensive reins
Bullis hired not one, but two new offensive coordinators during the offseason.
Jake Landry, offensive coordinator at UW-La Crosse, was set to take over but later accepted a position as running backs coach at Northern Illinois.
So Peter Jennings, who spent the past two years at Rhodes College (Memphis, Tennessee), is now the Warhawks’ new coordinator. Bullis said Jennings will shift back toward a true inside-zone offense.
“His eyes are always looking for an opportunity to teach,” Bullis said of Jennings. “It’s been a great transition.
“You talk to Pete, and he’s going to tell you what he wants to do as an offensive coordinator? Score, and then score, and then score, and then score again. ... It’s everything that comes behind that scoring, whether it’s building a culture, building your offense.”
A pair of players listing Janesville as their hometown will be captains for the Warhawks this season.
Senior defensive lineman Harry Henschler, a 2015 Janesville Craig graduate, had 14 sacks on his way to being named a third-team All-American selection last season by d3football.com. He’s a first-team preseason All-American this year, according to the same site, as well as Street & Smith and Lindy’s.
Senior offensive lineman Nate Trewyn, a 2014 Milton High grad, enters his third year as a starter and is a two-time all-WIAC pick after transferring from Minnesota State Mankato.
Pounding the rock
UW-W’s rushing attack has been its staple throughout its recent national success.
The Warhawks have several options at running back heading into this season. Included are: sophomore Alex Peete, who had 19 carries in nine games last year; Jarrod Ware, who is shifting back from more of a slot position; and Ronny Ponick, who was the team’s second-leading rusher with 262 yards and two touchdowns last year.
“Alex Peete is a guy that, I’ll be honest with you, we should have got him on the football field more last year,” Bullis said. “It’s hard to do when you’ve got Drew (Patterson, a 1,000-yard rusher).
“We feel real good about tailback.”
Jake Kumerow, who played for the Warhawks from 2012-14, is attempting to make the Green Bay Packers roster and caught a touchdown pass in the team’s first preseason game.
His brother, Derek, is heading into his first year at UW-W after transferring in time to take part in camp this past spring.