CEDAR FALLS — The new coaches are up to speed, and the players are up to speed about them. No wonder Mark Farley sounded so upbeat late Friday afternoon, on the eve of his Northern Iowa football team’s final spring practice.
“I am excited,” Farley said. “When we went into spring, we had four or five new coaches, a new group of receivers. You just didn’t know how everything was going to gel because you didn’t just have new players, you had new coaches.”
Four brand new assistants, to be specific, including a new offensive coordinator. That’s a lot of potential upheaval.
But UNI’s 15 spring practices went very well, according to Farley. The 15th and final was Saturday morning.
“It was the same message as in years past, but it was somebody else giving it,” Farley said. “The attentiveness was much greater this spring. They were listening to every word, responding every way they could. Then you had coaches working like it was the middle of the season, getting ready for the biggest game of the year every week. Because they were trying to stay ahead of the players, making sure they understood it as a group.
“I just saw the extra effort put in by the players and the coaches ... I saw the results of it.”
This promises to be a strong Panthers club this fall, as it seeks to return to the FCS playoffs after a frustrating 5-6 record in 2016. UNI lost five games by six points or less.
There are 11 returning starters and 54 letterwinners.
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“Number one (thing) is that toughness,” Farley said. “It goes right back to the line of scrimmage with your offensive line. It starts there and ends there. Trying to create that edge in that front seven, our offensive line and tight ends. Then, in turn, they are going against our defensive line and linebackers all the time. We put extra emphasis there.”
Farley said he liked how his o-line improved as spring ball went along. The Panthers return three starters there.
The defensive line also was good, he said, specifically mentioning the re-addition of Adam Reth, who missed all of last season for believed academic reasons.
“I thought the defensive line was impactful every practice,” Farley said. “When you get a guy like Adam Reth back to lead the group, and guys like Preston Woods, I thought the line made an impact in every practice for us with their experience and talent. They showed up every day, made an impact and changed the course of practice many times.”
The second half of camp was spent more on the skill positions. Farley said quarterback Eli Dunne continues to improve and look more comfortable running the offense.
He started the last half of the 2016 season.
There is some question right now about running back, where UNI lost Tyvis Smith and Michael Malloy. Farley said he expects the position to be filled by committee, with Trevor Allen, Marcus Weymiller and J’Veyon Browning.
Receiver appears it will be a strength for the 2017 Panthers. Guys like Daurice Fountain bring size and strength, guys like Jalen Rima bring speed, quickness and game-breaking ability.
Rima emerged as the 2016 season progressed as both a big-play receiver and kickoff/punt returner. It was telling that Farley mentioned the freshman from Cedar Rapids Prairie in the same sentence as Arizona Cardinals running back (and UNI grad) David Johnson.
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“What I learned last year about Jalen is the challenges you put in front of him are critical, because he always rises to them,” Farley said. “He’s one of those players that you do not know (about) until you put him into a situation. Then it’s like ‘All right, he passed that test. You can check that box off.’
“He’s more of a quiet guy, very similar to David Johnson in that any challenge you put in front of him, he conquers. He’s as fast as anybody on the field, but I’ve never put a clock on him. Nobody’s caught him, yet, but it’s one of those things where it doesn’t look like he’s running that fast. He’s got a lot of those same characteristics as David Johnson. To be compared (to) a guy like that is pretty good.”
Northern Iowa opens its 2017 season Sept. 2 at Iowa State. The home opener is the following week against Cal Poly.
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