No. 13 Panthers pack a punch
Northern Iowa football team features depth on offense, raw talent on defense
CEDAR FALLS — Another season of University of Northern Iowa football is right around the corner, and the Panthers have been hard at work for nearly a full week in practice.
In the team’s annual media day on Tuesday, UNI head coach Mark Farley said just in the first few days of practice he’s already seen some great things from his squad.
“It’s exciting to see where we are at right now with the whole group because we do look physically better than we did last year at this time,” Farley said.
The Panthers come into the season ranked No. 13 in the Football Championship Subdivision by STATS FCS after reaching the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2017.
What boosts that ranking for UNI is the amount of returners they bring back to the offensive side, including quarterback Eli Dunne, but while the Panthers are rich in offensive returners that isn’t the case on the defensive side.
“Defensively we are a work in progress, but only because of experience,” Farley said. “We don’t have a lot of experience, which breeds confidence, so we have to make sure they are confident and they know what the heck they are doing. We have to get this lined up and get the right people in the position that they can be effective with their talent.”
UNI is locked down in a few positions on defense, however, one of which is at linebacker. Senior Duncan Ferch — a West Marshall High School graduate — comes in as the quarterback of the defense in the middle linebacker spot, and Farley said Ferch is ready for a big senior year.
“Duncan is one of those guys that, as much as you try to beat him out or try to recruit one guy faster or bigger or stronger or that might look a little bit better getting off the bus, you can’t beat him out because he knows where he’s supposed to be and he knows what he’s supposed to be doing when he gets there,” Farley said. “That’s what makes your great players.”
Ferch comes into the season as the fifth-leading returning tackler in the entire Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Another place Farley said he has confidence in on the defensive side is his defensive line, which returns two starters from 2017.
“You have Bryce Douglas coming back for his sixth year. You’ve got Tim Butcher, who came out of Iowa Central and is an old boy from Iowa who just works hard. You’ve got Jared Brinkman who is just about as tough as they get and you’ve got Hezekiah Applegate,” Farley said. “Those four are your typical UNI defensive line. They are just going to be tough, they’re going to be strong, and they will have a motor and show up on every down.”
Add in last year’s MVFC sack leader in Rickey Neal Jr. at outside linebacker and the front seven for the Panthers should be strong. Where the experience loosens is in the secondary, where outside of sophomore Xavior Williams at cornerback, UNI doesn’t have much experience.
“With the safeties there’s skill there, it’s just what to do with it and where to put it,” Farley said. “You’ve got Christian Jegen, Suni Lane, Korby Sander, they are all in the same class. They are all second-year guys, they’ve got the skill and now they are big enough and good enough to win. We just have to get them in the right positions so they can play to what they can do right now this season.”
Williams will do his part in his second season with the program after recording four interceptions in his freshman campaign, but making up for the absence of Elijah Campbell in the other corner spot will be a key.
“That’s a more of a skill set there, you’ve just got to be good out there,” Farley said of what’s required at cornerback. “There’s not a lot of coaching that can save you out there, you’re either good or you’re not. We have to get those guys lined up and put them in a position where they can be successful too.”
Aside from Ferch being a steadying presence in the middle, the Panthers also return defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson for his fifth season with leading the defense and 13th season overall.
“He is as good and loyal to this university as anyone who has come through here,” Farley said. “J.J. is tremendous because he remembers stuff I forgot. He can do everything with our defense and he came here as a filmer. He’s worked his way from the film role to the position he’s in now.”
On the offensive end there is a lot less for the Panthers to have to replace, though there are still some holes left to fill.
Dunne returns for his senior season at QB after leading UNI to a strong 2017 season and finishing with 2,704 yards through the air and 26 touchdowns while playing in all but one game.
“He’s physical, strong for us, and he can make the throws we need him to,” Farley said of his signal caller. “He will get tested and where he’s made progress is taking on that role of what all quarterbacks have to have. That factor of where a team has to surround you and believe in you making those last two-minute drives, that type of thing, which means you have to have confidence. Experience breeds confidence, he got the experience last year and is starting to see what makes great quarterbacks different.”
Receiver Daurice Fountain made Dunne’s job easier last year after having a breakout year that led to him being drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the fifth round, but with Fountain gone there is a hole at the receiving spots that needs to be filled.
“He needs guys to throw to, and that starts with Jaylin James first because of what he’s done to get here and especially what he’s done this past summer,” Farley said. “He kind of took on the role of what Daurice did the previous summer, kind of the guy that is always on the team but didn’t stand out. Always on the team but didn’t stand out, Fountain stands out last year and I know that Jalen has put that kind of time commitment this summer to try and take the same path that Daurice did.”
Other wideouts Farley has his eye on are Isaiah Weston and Jalen Rima, but he said all those guys will have to learn bring something to the field that can’t be taught in practice.
” I’m always looking for what you can do extra. Not what you’re supposed to do but what you’ve done outside of what you’re expected to do,” Farley said. “That’s why I’m excited about this season, because this team as a whole has shown to do the extra things beyond what I expect of them.”
A good running game will go a long way towards helping open up the receivers, and the Panthers bring back a bell cow in senior Marcus Weymiller.
“Weymiller will probably be our leader, not just on the offense but probably for the whole football team,” Farley said. “He does the right things off the field, he carries the ball for the university, he worked at the marketing department this summer as an intern, he was down at the state house trying to work an internship there for his political science degree, the guy is doing everything he can to make himself the best he can as a student and he is by far doing what he can to make himself the best football player too.”
Weymiller had four 100-yard rushing games in just seven starts last season, finishing with 809 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns.
The group making the holes up front is arguably the most experienced on the team, and Farley said having such a talented and experienced set of offensive linemen is important for any team to have success.
“We are a little bit older, and you’re starting to see some of that development right now in their second, third, fourth year here,” he said. “We have good size there, the person that will probably lead that charge there will be Cale Twait. Cale is a senior, played as a freshman, and he’s probably as loyal to the University of Northern Iowa as anyone we’ve had commit to the university and be invested here. Through his injuries he’s had to weather some adversity, so this is a very important season to him.
“Jackson Scott-Brown, I have seen excellent improvement out of him since this time last year. He’s always been a starter, but now he’s starting to be a person where you think he could be an exceptional lineman for you. Not just be on the first team, but be a difference maker for you.”
Every line needs a good edge player, and Farley said his team is blessed with not one, but two tight ends.
“Our tight ends are as good as we’ve been in both aspects of the game: catching and blocking,” he said. “You’ve got Elias Nissen, a fifth-year senior who came from the Cedar Rapids area and he is looking like you’d hope a fifth-year senior would for you. Briley Moore has gotten some preseason hype, but Elias and Briley to me are very equal candidates for running the tight end. If there are two on the field that will be the two.”
There are quite a few new faces on the coaching staff this year as well, though one face is very familiar around the UNI-Dome. Bryce Paup, a 1989 UNI football alum and NFL Defensive MVP while playing with the Buffalo Bills in 1995, returns to the Panther sidelines for the first time since leaving the program in 2016.
“You bring a guy like Bryce Paup in, he played here, he knows the people here, he knows how this place operates, he knows how to be successful within this environment and he knows how to mentor and guide the players,” Farley said. “He came here and earned the way people talk to him right now, and he didn’t do it because he’s flamboyant and talking and jumping in front of cameras giving a bunch of Newt Rockne speeches. He just does it the way he became a player. He grinds out every day, he speaks to them like young men, and sense he knows this place and since he is allowed to teach that way he is successful, and he’s made us successful.”
Farley also brings on three former FBS players who all played for national championships to the staff. Offensive line coach Ryan Clanton played for Oregon during the 2011 BCS National Championship, while running backs coach Quentin Griffin won a national title with Oklahoma in 2001 and cornerbacks coach Aaron Savage was a defensive back on Auburn’s 2010 championship team for the first seven games before suffering a season-ending injury.
“You hope those guys come in here and instill the work that it takes to be great but also instill the manhood in these guys that they need at this time of their life,” Farley said. “They need great leadership and mentorship as much as they need football plays, so I thought they all filled that role for us.”