The men behind the man
By Adam Turer
Levell Coppage, behind an offensive line with four
new starters this season, is 480 yards from Nate Kmic's
all-divisions career rushing record.
There is no easy way to stop UW-Whitewater’s offense. Some might say that there is no way, period. The legs of Levell Coppage and the arm of Matt Blanchard get most of the attention, but it is the entire unit’s attention to detail that has the Warhawks offense churning through the postseason.
Coaches and players from Whitewater’s two most recent playoff opponents all noted the way the Warhawks seem to operate in unison on each snap. If you are hoping to catch a break due to a Whitewater player missing his assignment, you will likely still be waiting when the game clock strikes all zeroes. The commitment to detail is the key to the Warhawks’ overpowering offensive attack.
“It starts in the offseason with us putting in extra work after practice to make sure we’re all on the same page,” said first team All-West Region tackle Logan Allemand.
Allemand entered the season as the only senior starter on the offensive line. The offensive linemen, led by Allemand, put in extra time in the offseason and throughout the season. The extra work has paid dividends and the unit has been able to overcome inexperience and injury.
“We watch film together, do walk throughs together, and make sure we’re all in the same mind-set,” said Allemand. “The younger guys have gotten enough experience now. They do a really good job of listening.”
Coppage has rushed for 7,594 career yards to date, breaking Justin Beaver’s school and WIAC records. With potentially two games remaining, the NCAA all-divisions career rushing record is 480 yards away -- within striking distance.
“I’ve got to give all the credit to them,” Coppage said of his offensive linemen, past and present. “Those guys work in the trenches and don’t get the recognition that they deserve. All of my appreciation goes to them.”
With Coppage returning in the backfield and Gagliardi Trophy finalist Matt Blanchard back at quarterback, the closest thing to a question mark entering the season was how quickly the Warhawks’ offensive line would come together. Allemand and Ryan Olson were the most experienced linemen returning this year. The younger players have stepped up and protected Blanchard while paving the way for Coppage.
“I’m happy to see how they’ve come along,” said Coppage of his less-experienced blockers. “We have some young guys who are going to do great things for the Whitewater program.”
Coppage came to Whitewater with loads of talent, but has become a complete back over the past four seasons. He has rushed for over 1,000 yards each year and has learned the nuances of the position. Instead of relying solely on his skills, Coppage now knows how to play with patience and harmonize with the other ten members of the offense.
“He’s trying to be aware of what the offensive linemen, tight ends and wide receivers are doing. We teach reads at each level of the defense,” running backs coach Nelson Edmonds said.
“If you can be a great back, you can influence that third level of a defense. I think Levell can influence the corndog vendor in the stands.”
In addition to working with the linemen in practice on the interior running game, the Warhawks backs spend practice time with the offensive line working on blitz pickups. The coaching staff has stressed the importance of picking up the blitz and converting on third down, said Edmonds. Edmonds has a solid grasp of offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Steve Dinkel’s philosophy, which allows the backs to understand the grander scheme of the system.
“I’ve worked with Coach Dinkel for nine or ten years now,” said Edmonds. “I think we deliver a consistent message.”
Edmonds has worked with Coppage to get the West Region Co-Offensive Player of the Year to understand the system. Coppage has bought in to the coaching and has developed the kind of patience that makes him not only a dangerous threat to score every time he touches the ball, but a complement to Blanchard and the rest of the offense.
“I’m doing the same things I’ve always done, but now I understand why I’m doing them,” said Coppage. “Patience is the key, letting our linemen do their job and finding the hole.”
“I think he’s become more disciplined. He always has a knack that he wants to score every play in any way possible,” said Edmonds. “Now, he’s buying into discipline and that’s allowed his natural talent to shine through even more.”
Coppage has rushed for over 200 yards in the Warhawks’ past two playoff victories. He will face a stout test this week against St. Thomas’s top-ranked rush defense. The Tommies allow just 47.85 rushing yards per game and are third in the nation allowing just 9.38 points per game. The Tommies may focus on Coppage, but they will do so at their own risk.
“You can’t just worry about stopping Levell. You have to worry about our quarterback who’s playing great, and our wide receivers,” said Edmonds. “Once Levell gets up on you, he’s hard to stop.”
No matter how the Warhawks beat you offensively, there is always one constant: the play of the offensive line. It would be hard enough to stop a one-man show led by Coppage, but trying to stop a unit of eleven consistent performers is something no opposing defense has figured out in nearly three years. The running back and the linemen feed off of one another.
“He’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen,” said Allemand. “With Levell rushing for all these yards, it’s something that we take pride in.”
When asked who is more tired at the end of a game, Coppage after rushing for all those yards, or his linemen for paving the way for him, the All-American running back once again deferred.
“Probably them,” he answered with a humble laugh. “They usually stay in for more plays than I do.”