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CEDAR FALLS — Much was made during the offseason about the Northern Iowa offensive line.
Heading into 2017, the unit was seeking to rebound from a 2016 season that left the linemen and their head coach with a bad taste in their mouths.
Among the factors working in the offensive line’s favor heading into this fall was the return of Bryce Sweeney. A 2015 All-Missouri Valley Football Conference second-team honoree at right tackle, Sweeney was ruled out for 2016 shortly before the beginning of the season with a back injury that required surgery.
Now, through two games, the Sioux City native is back playing the sport he loves and doing so healthily, which is never a guarantee with back injuries.
“To help heal the back you just do a lot of stretching. To prevent it from hurting anymore you do a lot of core exercises,” Sweeney said. “Where I had surgery, at (the) T9 (disc), that is actually completely fine and normal.”
Sweeney said his lower back can give him problems once in awhile. He said the core exercises and stretches enable him to work past any of that lower back discomfort. More than anything he’s happy to have what was a long rehab process in the rearview mirror.
“As an athlete your whole life you’re told to ignore the pain and during that rehab I was told to focus on the pain and try not to have that pain. So it was a lot different for me,” Sweeney said. “Looking back it kind of was a long process.”
In the midst of Sweeney’s return a position change happened. In the late stages of fall camp, Spencer Brown had played so well as the second-team left tackle he was moved to starting right tackle. The corresponding move was a kick inside to guard for Sweeney.
It’s a move that hasn’t hindered his production, according to Coach Mark Farley.
“Bryce has played excellent,” Farley said. “He was the player of the week for us on the offensive line (versus Iowa State). I could have tagged him again this week. I think our offensive line is probably the biggest difference from last year to this year. But, for me, Bryce is playing very well.”
Sweeney has played a large part in a productive start for the UNI offensive line. Eli Dunne is averaging just shy of 300 yards passing per game, and through those two games he’s taken just four sacks.
“I think the confidence level is pretty good,” Sweeney said. “We’ve played a physical, hard game with little error. When we clean those few errors up we know the sky’s the limit for us.
“We’re finishing every play. Taking guys to the ground. Going to the whistle. There’s not really much negative we have. The only negative I guess could be the errors we make — the penalties. We’ve just got to clean those up.”