Changes abound for Panthers in 2017

T-R PHOTO BY THORN COMPTON • Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley responds to a question during the Panthers’ annual media day event on Wednesday in Cedar Falls.

CEDAR FALLS — When University of Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley took the podium at the Panthers media day on Wednesday, he gave a quick introduction then informed the press in attendance that they were going to do something a little new with this media day.

Considering new is kind of a theme for the UNI football team this season, Farley decided to let each of his assistant coaches have a crack at talking to the press, and so all nine position coaches filed up to the podium and gave their thoughts on the new season.

Seven of those coaches are fresh faces to Panthers football this year, as only Farley, defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson and tight ends coach Nick Danielson were on the staff in 2016.

After letting his coaches go, Farley then returned to the microphone and gave his thoughts on the turnover from last year’s coaching staff.

“What’s been good about it is it brings a different set of eyes into the room and you don’t want to become stagnant,” Farley said. “I like to get a different view of things, sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees. I know this, the more guys who look at it with a different set of eyes from different places, they can see some things that maybe you don’t see immediately. Those are the things that when you get a bunch of guys together like this, with different talents and skill sets, they can bring different thoughts to the room.”

Looking at all the new hires, there is definitely a mix of both veteran coaches and younger coaches looking to make a name for themselves. Farley said he prefers to have that combination of viewpoints to further expand their approach to the game.

“I try to hire the most experienced guys, also ones with youth and with great futures,” he said. “I want them in the room because they need to be able to relate to our players and yet compete in a very strong coaching league. This is a strong league for coaches, so you better be talented on the board, you better be a talented recruiter and you better be a great teacher.”

As Farley stated, the Missouri Valley Football Conference is one of the toughest in the Football Championship Subdivision, boasting the likes of North Dakota State and South Dakota State, both teams the Panthers play on the road this year.

One thing that will be a huge factor in the success of UNI football is how the offense functions, especially with new offensive line coach Mike Simmonds and new quarterbacks coach John Bond splitting duties as co-offensive coordinators.

Farley spoke highly of both men, who each have a long pedigree of success as coaches, and he specifically singled out Simmonds as the kind of coach who knows what it takes to win.

“Coach Simmonds is a very strong individual, and what I like about him is the number one position you need a strong coach is at offensive line,” Farley said. “We have to get better at offensive line, so it is more about developing that culture as an offensive lineman at UNI. Every great offensive line coach I have been around has a strong demeanor about him and his players will be tough and they will respond at practice.”

Simmonds, who played in the MVFC at Indiana State, said he knows how to compete in this conference and plans to further the success that the Panthers have experienced in Farley’s 17 years on the job.

“Coach Farley runs an outstanding program here, and to me even having been at some different BCS schools I like how this program is run,” Simmonds said as the first assistant coach to take the podium. “It is a no-nonsense, blue-collar program and I am looking forward to this 2017 football season.”

As for Bond, who also has experience coaching in the MVFC at Southwest Missouri State — now known as Missouri State — and Illinois State, he said what he brings to the table is a wealth of knowledge from the great coaches he has worked with in the past.

“I have been fortunate enough to be around a lot of good folks. I played at Arkansas for two hall of fame guys in Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield, two completely different personalities but two hall of famers,” Bond said. “I have had the good fortune to be around a lot of those types of guys, guys that know how to motivate, guys that know how to X and O, guys that know how to recruit and really the cream of the crop.”

As Farley said though, there are also a few younger coaches looking to make a name for themselves joining the staff, notably former UNI receiver and quarterback D.P Eyman, who played for the Panthers from 2005-2009.

“For me, it all started right here at the University of Northern Iowa,” Eyman, who will be coaching running backs this year, said. “This is where coaching became a passion, this is what I wanted to do and it was a direct result of who I got to work with. The pedigree of coaches that come from this university and the pedigree of the coaches at this university is unbelievable. It was very special for me to come back to be a part of that.”

On the defensive end, leading the list of new names is actually a former defensive assistant for Farley making his return to UNI football in D.J. Vokolek. He said, while much has changed since he left the program in 2005, the passion and people who support the Panthers had him ready to make his return as soon as Farley offered him the job.

“When coach Farley gave me a call and had a position open I was truly, truly excited to come back here,” Vokolek said. “The people here in the Cedar Valley are great people, me and my family love this place. It is great to be back and be a part of this community.

“The fan support, the amount of fans that pack the Dome on Saturdays, it is extremely exciting. One thing that really stands out is the tradition, there is great tradition here at the University of Northern Iowa. There are good coaches that have been here and I feel very excited about the coaches we have on staff. I am excited to be a part of it and very, very excited to be back.”

Of course, there are also quite a few players the Panthers will have to replace this season, notably FCS Defensive Player of the Year Karter Schult, but Farley said the culture of UNI football is one that nurtures leadership, so his team will be fine on that end moving forward.

“What I like about our team and the way that this place is built, I am going to go back to punter Sam Kuhter (from South Tama) teaching the group right now, because he was taught by the guys before him who were really good,” Farley said. “Then, to go back to the defensive line, they pass the baton around as a group and guys like Adam Reth are carrying the load right now of leadership, Preston Woods is carrying the load of leadership after sitting in that room for four years. Now it’s his time to pass on the ideas of what it is to play that position.”

Coaching staff and players aren’t the only changes underway at the UNI-Dome this fall, as the entire field has been resurfaced for a new, softer field turf. Farley said replacing the field was something the team should have taken care of a while ago.

“It is very nice to have a surface that is safe,” he said. “We had an unsafe surface out there. The product didn’t hold up and for a long time you saw guys slip and slide that played in there. There is no question we struggled in there, and you never want to struggle on your home football field.”

Generally, when you add more cushion to a playing surface, player’s speed can decrease due to the cushion absorbing their momentum. Farley said that won’t be the case at the UNI-Dome this season, however, and his players will even seem faster on the field.

“We have a surface now that is very soft, when I played in there it was concrete so it was very fast but now it has a cushion to it and a cushion usually isn’t as fast,” he said. “But, as I went through high school camps this summer, I saw it is a fast surface in there. We had times in there that stood out, the other surface you couldn’t get a good [40-yard-dash] time out there but now you can get back into the 4.4s and 4.5s now. And you can break on it, on the old surface for every step you took you’d slide three. You can break on this surface, and that’s important because we recruit that.”

Despite all the changes at UNI this season, Farley said the brand of Panthers football he has put out for the last 17 years will remain the same, albeit with a few tweaks.

“It will play out as it plays out. You can’t force anything upon them, it has to take the role of the players,” he said of possible scheme changes. “We have changed every year based on the players we’ve had. We will identify our strengths and that’s what we will play to.

“The one thing about UNI is, we are who we are. We aren’t trying to fool anyone, this is who we are, this is how we are going to play, and hopefully it will represent what we offer when this is all said and done.”