CEDAR FALLS — It’s been a few years since Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley has gone into a season as confident in an offensive line as he is this season.
It’s been a work in progress to get back to a line that has the size and ability to push opponents around one-on-one and win those physical battles up front against an onslaught of Missouri Valley Football Conference pass rushers. It took mixing and matching, and putting young players into the fire.
But worry no longer.
An offensive line that led a UNI rushing attack to 3,630 total rushing yards in 2015 — including two 1,000-yard rushers in Aaron Bailey (1,334) and Tyvis Smith (1,079) — returns four of the five primary starters this season. The only loss from that unit was to graduation in tackle Jacob Rathmacher.
Continuity breeds consistency, and the Panthers have that in 2016.
“We want to make sure we’re doing all the things we need to do every day to get better, so in that sense, the dynamic hasn’t changed for the team as a whole,” said senior center Robert Rathje. “We’re only going to be as good as we make it. As an offensive line, we definitely have leaders in this group, and have the mindset that we’re going to get the job done at all costs. It’ll go as far as we take it.”
UNI returns Rathje, who missed spring ball with an injury, but has been a full go in fall camp, Cal Twait, who started seven straight games before missing the final five with a knee injury, Trevor Hanson, who started the final 12 games of the season, and Bryce Sweeney, who started all but one game, including the last nine.
The only wrinkle is Sweeney has missed all of fall camp after injuring himself in the weight room, and beyond the four returners, the group is fairly young and without a ton of game experience.
Only juniors Byron Rich and Lee Carhart are upper classmen outside those returners, so players like sophomore Jacob Appleman, and a group of redshirt freshmen in Iowa City Regina grad Philip Arendt, Jackson Scott-Brown and Colton Lueck will have to fulfill Farley’s “pair and a spare” philosophy to be ready.
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“That’s part of this game. We have to make some adjustments, and we’ve got an opportunity to run two or three deep right now,” Farley said at Media Day. “If we do our job right, it should be a blip in the screen, but you’re always conscious when you lose a very good player and (Sweeney) got hurt this summer in the weight room.
“We’ll find out (how long he’s out), but it’s too early to tell.”
Still, it’s a group with tremendous confidence.
Led by offensive line coach Ben Barkema, a former Iowa State tight end, they’ve enjoyed being the group with the leg up on their counterparts on the defensive line for once. The battles in fall camp have been fast and furious, especially with a guy like Karter Schult on the other side to go up against.
Being able to come back with as much as they have — even with the Sweeney injury, which still is up in the air when or if he’ll return — has allowed the offense to roll through fall camp while fine-tuning instead of wholesale adjustments.
It also doesn’t hurt that the people they get to block for are back, too.
“It’s an exciting feeling knowing we’ve got guys like Tyvis (Smith) and Aaron (Bailey) and Michael Malloy back there to block for. It’s nice knowing we’ve got Rob, Trevor, Sweeney — we’ve all been there,” Twait said. “Knowing you’ve had success just makes you excited for what you get to do this year.
“I go against Karter Schult all the time. The defensive line still is really good. Iron sharpens iron. We’re going to go against the ones, they’ll give us their best and we’ll get better.”
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