Questions for champs at quarterback, secondary as team begins spring practice

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All-American junior running back Levell Coppage, who scored 35 touchdowns last season, is one of three tailbacks returning for the 2009 national champions. Photo by Joy Kowald.

They received a standing ovation at a Wisconsin Badger basketball game.

They have been recognized by the Whitewater Common Council.

They even mingled and shared a few laughs with Gov. Jim Doyle at his mansion in Madison.

It’s been quite the ride for the football team since defeating Mount Union College (Alliance, Ohio), 38-28, on Dec. 19 to win the program’s second national championship in three years.

However, with the first of 15 spring practices beginning today, senior wide receiver Aaron Rusch already has his eye on the 2010 season.

Actually, he hasn’t looked back at last year’s championship too often.

“The moment that the [Stagg Bowl] ended we started getting ready for this season,” said Rusch, UW-Whitewater’s all-time receptions leader. “We know we can’t just show up in the fall. You have to continue it throughout the whole year.”

The Warhawks are scheduled to practice until May 9 before breaking for fall camp in August.

Despite playing deep into the postseason for the fifth consecutive year, head coach Lance Leipold, who garnered many national coach of the year honors for leading the ’Hawks (15-0) to their first undefeated season since 1950, said the five-time reigning WIAC champions are getting the itch to return to the gridiron.

“I think they’re excited,” said Leipold, who interviewed for a Division II head coaching position in the weeks following the national championship game. “They feel good about what they’ve accomplished. The thing that’s interesting is there’s a lot of competition at positions guys are fighting for, and they know it starts now.”

Indeed it does.

Because gone is quarterback and WIAC player of the year Jeff Donovan along with his 27 touchdowns and his 72 completion percentage.

Gone is four-time All-American Jeff Schebler and his NCAA leading 467 points.

Gone are six all-WIAC defensive players including two who earned All-American honors, linebacker Kyle Supianoski and defensive back Troney Shumpert.

Gone is offensive coordinator Jim Zebrowski, who helped the UW-Whitewater offense finish fourth in the nation in scoring last year at 42.5 points per game and fifth in total offense at 489.6 yards per game.

While Leipold replaced Zebrowski with Steve Dinkel, who has run the offensive line the last eight years, after one week in early February, the quarterback and the secondary positions appear to be the biggest question marks heading into the spring.

With Donovan no longer gracing the sidelines, junior Matt Blanchard, who appeared in nine of the team’s 15 games, enters the season as the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart.

Blanchard’s growth at quarterback was hindered last year after he missed much of the conference portion of the schedule with an injury. Though, when given the opportunity, he showed his ability to run, as he finished the 2009 season with 115 yards on 24 carries.

“The connection the other receivers and I had with Jeff was great,” Rusch said. “But I’m excited about the guys we have coming in. Matt’s a heck of an athlete, and this spring will help him tremendously. Matt is going to be the guy that’s the frontrunner. I have no doubts he will be ready.”

Leipold, however, isn’t ready to hand over the starting spot to the former Division II quarterback from Northern Michigan University.

“I won’t say the favorite,” Leipold said of Blanchard, who completed 10-of-14 passes and threw one interception in mop-up duty last year. “But when we line up by how we finished the season, and by seniority, Matt would be there.”

Leipold said last year’s third-string quarterback Steve McCollom will move to defense, leaving sophomore Cory Knapp, who appeared in only three games and completed one pass, as the backup heading into spring.

As the practices, which are non-contact, get underway, Dinkel has a message for the quarterbacks competing for the starting position.

“Jeff was an outstanding quarterback for us,” Dinkel said. “He did some tremendous things. He was a great senior leader for us, but no means are we asking any of these guys to be Jeff Donovan.”

With a veteran receiving core, a trio of talented running backs and an experienced offensive line, Dinkel doesn’t envision the quarterback spot to be an issue.

“We don’t play a game in the spring,” Dinkel said. “From that standpoint, we’re just asking our guys to get the understanding of the offense back and try to give us some foundation to catapult us to two-a-days and get ready to roll.”

Despite the season opener still more than four months away, Rusch is ready to roll.

“It’s going to be great to get everyone back together in one setting and get back in the swing of things,” Rusch said. “The bar keeps getting raised, and we want to keep the tradition alive.”