CEDAR FALLS - Evolving was a popular term for Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley in describing his Panthers Wednesday during the team's annual media day.
It is a fitting adjective since Northern Iowa is moving on from a 2007 season that saw the Panthers hold the No. 1 national ranking for six weeks, finish 12-1 and become the first team in Missouri Valley Football Conference history to win their first 12 games.
Lost to graduation are two offensive lineman that were selected in the NFL draft (Chad Rinehart and Brandon Keith), a four-year starting quarterback that was the conference's offensive player of the year (Eric Sanders) and the conference's defensive player of the year (Brannon Carter).
T-R PHOTO BY MARK PAWLAK
Northern Iowa running back Corey Lewis is held up by Panther offensive linemen Bob Swift, Jason Fiacco, Austin Steichen, Jordan Limbaugh and Austin Howard during the team’s media day Wednesday in Cedar Falls at the UNI-Dome.
There are still some constants around the UNI-Dome that lead one to believe Northern Iowa again will make its presence known in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Six starters are back on offense along with seven returners on a defense that ranked in the top 15 nationally in rush defense (sixth), scoring defense (seventh) and total defense (11th).
"Last year was an experienced football team that came on board and where we started at two-a-days was at a very high level of play because of that experience," Farley said.
Northern Iowa Football - 2008 Schedule
Aug. 30at BYU
Sept. 6SOUTH DAKOTA
Sept. 20SOUTH DAKOTA ST.
Sept. 27at Southern Illinois
Oct. 2NICHOLLS ST.
Oct. 11ILLINOIS ST.
Oct. 18NORTH DAKOTA ST.
Oct. 25at Youngstown St.
Nov. 1at Western Illinois
Nov. 8MISSOURI ST.
Nov. 15at Indiana St.
Nov. 22at Southern Utah
"This team will evolve as the season transpires for us."
The offense will be led by senior running back Corey Lewis and senior wide receiver Johnny Gray. The two are gamebreakers that the Missouri Valley Football Conference know plenty about - the league changed its name in June to go along with the addition of North Dakota State and South Dakota State this season.
Lewis is a prototype back for the Panthers' West Coast attack and is utilized as such.
"We gave him the ball in every shape and form last year," Farley said. "We'll use Corey in the same way."
Lewis set a single-season school record last fall with his 1,513 rushing yards, while his 16 touchdowns are the second most at UNI.
In addition to his 258 rushing attempts, Lewis caught 54 passes for 642 yards as he led the conference in all-purpose yards.
"This offense is perfect for a running back, especially if you can catch because they will use you every way," Lewis said. "They split you out at receiver, sometimes motion you from receiver. It's focused on (the running back position), it's a privilege almost (to be the running back)."
After racking up a team-high 894 yards as a sophomore and playing in all 15 games as a freshman, Lewis is in position to become the Panthers' all-time leading rusher.
Lewis needs 1,146 yards in 2008 to catch Jeff Stovall for the career lead.
"Of course it's one of the personal goals, not too many people can come up with an accomplishment like that," Lewis said. "That's one of my goals, it just makes me work harder hearing that."
The All-American candidate and potential NFL player knows defenses will be gearing up for him.
"I'm more focused, more ready. I know they are going to be keying on me but if they are keying on me, they might be in trouble because we have a lot of weapons," Lewis said.
Leading that list of weapons is Gray, also an all-conference performer after leading the conference is receptions (70), receiving yards per game (70) and punt returns (16.9 yards per return).
Farley knows what those two will bring to the table. Seeing what comes from the offensive line and at quarterback on Saturdays is the question at the start of camp.
The offensive line will be a work in progress to start out with right tackle Bob Swift the only full-time starter from last year's unit returning.
"The development of the offensive line is key," Farley said. "We will run the football, you can throw the football the heck of a lot better if you can run the football."
Replacing Sanders, who was second in the Walter Payton Award voting last year (the FCS Heisman Trophy), is Sioux City native Pat Grace.
The sophomore played in seven games last year as the back-up to Sanders and is listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. His running ability and arm strength will be assets to the offense.
"Pat Grace is our starter no questions asked," Farley said.
"He has a great arm, he's very athletic and he's got a toughness to him," he added.
The defense has seven starters back - three linemen, one linebacker and three backs. Middle linebacker De'Veon Harris was second on the team last year in tackles and has conference defensive player of the year potential.
The Panthers start their journey in trying to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1995-96 with a trip to BYU Aug. 30.
The Cougars have won back-to-back Mountain West Conference titles and are ranked 17th in the preseason USA Today Coaches poll at the BCS level.
"I say we're going to evolve because of the offense, you just can't throw five guys out there on the offensive line and put a new quarterback under center and think everything will go right," Farley said.