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CEDAR FALLS — Practice Wednesday afternoon at the UNI-Dome was upbeat and uptempo. Four hours of upbeat and uptempo, to be specific.
And perhaps the most surprising aspect of it was the lack of “Hello, My Name Is ...” stickers on anyone’s shirt.
Spring football at Northern Iowa this year is a lot about creating some familiarity. There are four new assistant coaches for the Panthers, with a fifth expected to be announced any day.
That’s a ton of turnover.
“If I could figure it out, I’d write a book,” said UNI head coach Mark Farley, when asked about the difficulties of blending in an almost entirely new staff. “In the end, I took a long time to hire them because I wanted to make sure I had the right guys. I wanted to get the right guys for the team that we have.
"We’ve had some great assistants who have recruited some great players. I think we needed to get some established guys in here to really create that (culture). A lot of guys who really knew about Northern Iowa. They may have been outsiders looking at us, they may have been in this league before. I want them to bring their personality into what we are trying to achieve here.”
The newbies are Jeff Burris (defensive backs), David Braun (defensive line), Mike Simmonds (offensive line) and John Bond (quarterbacks). Longtime offensive coordinator Bill Salmon retired after the 2016 season, and Farley said Bond and Simmonds are sharing those duties for the Panthers.
Bond comes to Cedar Falls from Tennessee-Martin and has been an OC at places like Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Northern Illinois and Army.
“We do what we do here,” Farley said, when asked if his team’s offensive style would change with a new coordinator. “Yeah, they will bring their ideas. But we bring people into our program, our players have been groomed in this fashion. We have our style of running it, then they can bring their personality in.”
UNI returns 11 starters and 54 letterwinners from a 2016 team that finished 5-6 and out of the FCS playoffs. Five of the Panthers’ losses were by six points or less.
Offensively, Eli Dunne emerged at quarterback midway through the season and is back, along with wide receivers Daurice Fountain, Jaylin James, Marcus Weymiller and Jalen Rima. Three of UNI’s starting linemen also return.
On defense, three starters are back from a secondary that led the Missouri Valley Conference in interceptions. One of those guys, however, is safety A.J. Allen, who — with teammate Xavior Williams — was arrested Thursday by Cedar Falls police for their part in an early Sunday morning bar fracas that saw former Panthers and current NFL players Makinton Dorleant (Packers) and Deiondre Hall (Bears) arrested.
Jared Farley and Duncan Ferch return to form the nucleus of what should be a very fine linebacker corps. All-American Karter Schult has graduated, but UNI still should be fine up front defensively, with the return of guys like Preston Woods, Rickey Neal, Bryce Douglas, Hezekiah Applegate and Adam Reth.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but these guys are into it,” Farley said. “Their eyes, they want it. That’s all you can ask for right now. We’ve got a team that wants it. They come out here and practice, they’ve got the same effort at the end of practice as they do at the beginning. That’s what we’re trying to instill in them. We’ve got good people to work with, now it’s just connecting all the dots and getting everything in synch.”
UNI has 15 total spring practices, including an open scrimmage April 15 at the UNI-Dome. The final practice is April 22.
The UNI-Dome turf then will be replaced after seven years of use.
“I just want to play Northern Iowa football,” Farley said. “To get them to understand what Northern Iowa is about. They’ve got to be UNI tough, so we’ve kind of got to go to our roots. We’ve got a bunch of young players here who need to understand what this program was built on. If we can do that, that’s how this team can be good.”
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