An injury and position change have made Jarrod Ware the perfect elder statesman for the UW-Whitewater running back group.
Head coach Kevin Bullis referred to Ware as “the gem” of the 2015 recruiting class, which was Bullis’ first as head coach.
In 2018, Ware’s first senior season was cut short when he broke his foot. He was granted a medical redshirt and is turning in his most productive and complete season of his career.
“It’s a new year. If anything, it was a positive because I had all this time throughout the season; I was pretty healthy,” Ware said. “I took that time to focus on my craft and focus on getting stronger and better. I think that played a huge role in the season I’m having this year.”
Junior Alex Peete, a preseason all-American, and senior captain Ronny Ponick combine with Ware to make a formidable three-headed running back combination. The Warhawks have averaged almost five yards per carry, which they will need when they host an NCAA Division III semifinal against St. John’s (Minnesota) on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Ware carried the ball 84 times for 440 yards as a freshman and 84 times for 419 yards as a sophomore. He moved to the receiver position as a junior for two reasons: to add depth to a thin position group and to get his speed in space.
Ware returned to the running back room in 2018 and got injured. This season, he’s rushed for 740 yards on 131 carries and six touchdowns.
The five-year career at UW-Whitewater almost never happened. Ware was committed to playing at Eastern Illinois until the Panthers decided to award the scholarship to another player.
“When he came back to us, we were thrilled. We knew then he was the gem of that recruiting class,” Bullis said.
“He’s battled injury his entire career, and that’s the one thing that a year ago added onto that element of when he broke his foot. It’s like ‘Criminy, this guy can’t get a break.’ For him to stay healthy and have the season that he’s had, it’s what we expected when we got that gem and it’s pretty special.”
Initially during Ware’s recruitment, Bullis was the interim head coach still awaiting confirmation that he would be the head coach. Ware made his decision later in the spring.
Bullis and Ware haven’t looked back.
“When I decided to come here, that whole coaching change had already happened,” Ware said. “I want to say it was in March, April or May that I made the decision to come here. That was way after signing day. It was a quick turnaround.
“I wasn’t going where I thought I was going. I didn’t really know much about this place in Wisconsin, but I knew about its tradition of winning and that’s all I cared about.”
Though Ware was injured for the 2018 semifinal game at Mary Hardin-Baylor, this won’t be the first time he’s playing a meaningful role in a game with the championship game berth on the line. Ware was the No. 2 running back his freshman year when the Warhawks lost to Mount Union, 36-6.
The Warhawks led in that game 6-0, before the Purple Raiders scored the game’s final 36 points.
UW-Whitewater has a diversified offense this season, paced by its running game.
“It was just me and Ronny last year and we were both getting pounded,” Peete said. “Now, you have three of us in there and somebody could go in and you might sit for two drives, but you’re going to be fresh going in.
“I think it’s a little less stressful on your bodies. And then also, you know that if somebody isn’t having the best game, you know somebody is going to lift you up. I think that’s the attitude and our chemistry has really built from it.”
The run on Saturday
Ware and Peete both changed their demeanor when one running play from last Saturday’s win at Mary-Hardin Baylor was mentioned.
Ware spun his leg free from a would-be tackler and was driven up into the air by another UMHB tackler. UW-Whitewater lineman Ethan Kee caught Ware and drove him forward for 13 yards as receiver Derek Kumerow pulled him.
“It was a weird play,” Ware said. “It was one of the coolest plays I’ve been part of honestly.
“After the play, I had no idea he caught me. I had no idea what happened. I had my hand and my foot on the ground and the whole time, I was thinking, ‘Am I actually keeping myself up?’ Then I realized I was being picked up and carried. The whole time I’m hoping the refs don’t blow the whistle so that we can keep going.
“I was just hoping my O-line was pushing me the right way because I got turned around a couple of times. It was a surreal play.”
Some have questioned the legality of the play.
Most just marvel.
“I’ve been part of nothing similar,” Peete said. “Maybe a couple of yards where it’s moving, but not in the air, getting carried for like 15 extra yards. I was next to (fourth-string running back) Jaylon Edmonson, and we were sitting there and they’re moving a little bit forward and then they kept on going. The sidelines started going crazy. That was the play of the game easily and that was big momentum for us. That was at the start of the second half.
“I didn’t know if he fell or not. I saw him up in the air and I was like, ‘Oh gosh, that might be a hard hit.’ Ethan got him and they just kept going.”
The Warhawks’ backfield hopes to have a few gains like that Saturday at Perkins Stadium to help carry the team into the Stagg Bowl.