The defense was dominant, and they had the most explosive offense on campus in the post-Lance Leipold era.

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater returned to the NCAA Division III football championship picture last year.

Because the Warhawks were in control of every regular-season game by halftime, the underclassmen got the experience they needed to make sure UW-Whitewater remains in title contention.

Evidence of that is in the front seven of the team's defense.

Senior captains Harry Henschler and Bryce Leszczynski, as well as defensive linemen David O’Gorman, were centerpieces to controlling the line of scrimmage. Despite all of them graduating, the Warhawks still have dangerous pieces prepared to haunt the WIAC and win a 37th league title.

Those pieces start with linebackers Jacob Erbs, Matt Anderson and Kaleb Kaminsky.

“They played a lot of ball for us last year,” UW-W head coach Kevin Bullis said. “They’re obviously going to miss a lot of Bryce’s leadership, but I’ll tell you this, Jacob Erbs is a leader now. He naturally slides into that role of being a linebacker leader.

“The great thing about that group is that they fit together well. Matt has played a lot of (middle) linebacker and Erbs has predominantly played outside backer.”

In front of that dynamic linebacking crew, Whitewater boasts the most depth Bullis and assistant coach Ryan Cortez have had on the defensive line.

“We ultimately have five seniors in that defensive line this year,” Bullis said. “It’s guys like Merritt Stott coming back with a lot of play, D’Angelo Lux, Justin Hansen and Jordan Brand got a ton of play.”

No one better exemplifies the luxury afforded UW-Wr when it was able to play reserves last year than Mackenzie Balanganayi. The defensive end was long on talent but found himself as the fifth defensive end on the depth chart most of the year, according to Bullis. He still managed to play more than 220 snaps.

For context, Henschler, an All-American out of Janesville Craig who stayed healthy throughout the season, had around 340 snaps.

“We were fortunate to have some games where we had some nice leads to get the Mackenzie Balanganayi on the field,” Bullis said. “You can’t beat game experience. It’s invaluable.

“He’ll walk on the field and feel like a veteran."

The Warhawks have a lot of depth on the offensive line, too.

Two years ago, offensive line coach Brent Allen was quietly confident in the 2018 sophomores. Those sophomores—Quinn Meinerz, Kyle Gannon, Douglas Kosch and Ethan Kee, among others—didn’t disappoint as Whitewater put up back-to-back weeks of 400 rushing yards in the playoffs.

Those sophomores also had the privilege of working with Division III Rimington Award winner Nate Trewyn, who is currently in camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Kee is expected to be the center in the middle of the line.

Accompanying that group of juniors is senior Bryan Behrendt.

“That’s a veteran-laden group,” Bullis said. “Meinerz has assumed that leadership role along with Bryan Behrendt this past spring. As far as the leadership aspect, Nate left a void. We feel very good about Quinn and Bryan taking the lead with those guys.”

They’ll be tasked with opening holes for a stacked stable of running backs. The running back group starts with junior Alex Peete, a do-it-all back, and continues with Ronny Ponick, a bruising running back who put together a pair of drives with consecutive carries pounding the ball up the middle to break the defense’s will. The change-of-pace back will be Jarrod Ware, who has been bitten by the injury bug each of the last two years.

“All three of those guys could start for any team in this league,” Bullis said.

Captains

Meinerz joins Bryce Leszczynski and Matt Behrendt as the only other players in Bullis’ coaching career (1990-current) to be named captain twice in a college career.

The left guard was first-team all-WIAC last season. He will be joined by senior safety Nate Tranel, senior linebacker Jacob Erbs and senior running back Ronny Ponick.

On the defensive side of the ball, Bullis said he’s hoping to see Erbs and Tranel complement each other well with their leadership styles.

“Erbs was right up there with Leszczynski and Henschler as bringing intensity,” Bullis said. “Erbs is an intense son of a gun. He walks into a room and it effervesces off of him.

“Nate Tranel is that calm leader, the administrator. It’s a nice combination. They both feed off of each other and can feed off of each other really well.”

Special teams

In the kicking game, Andy Cooper will be focusing solely on punting duties. Last year, Cooper was pressed into the punting role out of necessity. He had done it before, but he came to UW-Whitewater to be a receiver.

“I think you’ll see him be a lot more consistent for us this year,” Bullis said. “He did a really good job last year, but he hadn’t focused on it as much as he is this year. Hopefully, with that (focus and time) he’ll be able to be even better and more consistent.”

Junior placekicker Wojciech Gasienica and senior long snapper Mason Fleury return for the Warhawks. Gasienica was an honorable mention-WIAC selection.

Fleury has been solid for the Warhawks as the unheralded long snapper for three years.

“The thing about Mason is you’ll actually see him getting down the field and making tackles,” Bullis said. “He does a great job getting down the field and takes a lot of pride in that.”

The schedule

Before the Warhawks get a chance to see if they have a Stagg Bowl run in them, they’ll have their most competitive nonconference schedule in three years and the customary challenges of the WIAC slate.

UW-Whitewater opens with Dubuque on Sept. 27. It’s a matchup that made waves over the winter when it was reported by the La Crosse Tribune that former UW-Whitewater coaches shared Warhawks’ playbooks with each other before passing them up to UW-La Crosse, as well.

Bullis said he had talked to the coaches involved and he was moving past it. He said it wouldn’t be added motivation for himself or the team.

The WIAC presents the usual challenges, but the Warhawks wrap up the season against UW-Oshkosh in a game that could be for the WIAC title and a trip to the playoffs.

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