CEDAR FALLS — It takes quite a bit to stand out on a football field.
On a team of 95, drawing the eyes of coaches in a good way takes doing something special, especially if you haven’t been highly recruited or sought-after. Those diamonds in the rough and players who rise from unknown to program lynch-pin — cough, Karter Schult, cough — happen because of “who’s that?” plays.
When Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley is watching film, he’s looking for players who make themselves known and force the coaching staff to double back to be sure, and to point them out. As he rebuilds a team that went 9-5 last season and lost in the FCS Playoffs quarterfinals to eventual national champion North Dakota State, Farley needs some of those “who’s that?” players.
“You’ve got to have the ‘Who’s that?’ play. The more you have of that, the better off you are,” Farley said. “I’m watching film with a group of guys and the first thing I see is a flash across the screen. I’m watching everything, how it develops and where everyone’s lined up at. When the play develops I see a flash across the screen of someone moving faster than everyone else. My first instinct is to blurt out, ‘Who’s that?’
“If I’m saying that in a coaches room or players’ room, that player looks different than anyone on the football field. The more times you get a ‘Who’s that?’ (the better off you are). …Really, that’s how it’s found.”
The Panthers lost in what many — including both Farley and NDSU Coach Chris Kleiman — called the de facto national championship game, and afterward lost a group of players as vital to any team Farley has ever coached.
NFL draft pick and Chicago Bear Deiondre Hall, current Green Bay Packer Makinton Dorleant, Tim Kilfoy, Brett McMakin and Isaac Ales were the biggest names among a group of 24 lettermen gone to either graduation or, in McMakin’s case, leaving early for the draft.
Rebuilding the depth was priority No. 1 this summer in a defense that has — save for maybe one or two other instances in Farley’s first 15 seasons as head coach — always been the more consistent, stronger unit when compared to the offense. Of the 95 players on the roster, 29 are true freshmen, six are transfers and 15 more are coming off a redshirt. Notable defensive newcomers include Florida State transfer Tyrell Lyons, Fresno State transfer Malcolm Washington and freshmen Isaiah Nimmers (Cedar Rapids Washington) and Xavior Williams (Burlington Notre Dame).
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When more than half your roster has never played a down for UNI, there’s a lot of work to do.
“Losing two NFL-type corners hurt. Very seldom do you have one NFL corner go, let alone two. There’s no question we have to redevelop that group,” Farley said. “We have some young men who came in with experience and maturity to them, yet we have some young players who came from great programs who have a lot of confidence.
“My gut and first instinct is take the football player who fits UNI and fits our program. We’re going to take the best available that checks those boxes off.”
Farley has a couple aces up his sleeve, as it were, to help that process, though.
Despite all those team leaders he lost, he has a few pretty important ones left over. Schult, a former defensive tackle who now will line up at defensive end, is a STATS Preseason All-American, and on the Defensive Player of the Year watchlist. Quarterback Aaron Bailey is on the Offensive Player of the Year watchlist, and enters 2016 as comfortable and confident as he ever has playing football.
Their production certainly will be necessary to success for UNI, but their teaching and leading those around them will, too. Schult said he, Bailey and a few others got together and synchronized their goals and leadership style this summer. The result became the team’s hashtag for this year: #GRIT.
“We’re going to have plenty of guys who are pretty new who haven’t had game experience and if I’m not teaching them what to do, it’s not going to help me,” Schult said. “Me, Aaron, Rob (Rathje) and Tyvis (Smith) and some other guys, we got together and came up with what we want this team’s agenda to be. We call it GRIT. It means something to us. It’s what we say to each other in meetings or breaking it down in the middle. That was formulated throughout spring and summer so we can have an identity.
“Genuine, Resiliency, Integrity and Tenacity make the acronym. The whole word itself is how UNI has always been. We’re gritty; we’re hard workers. We’re Midwestern, blue-collar, bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work guys, you know?”
UNI’s Media Day on Friday was similar to that of any football team’s across the country. There was a lot of excitement and optimism that comes with starting a new season, but that doesn’t mean the coaches and players aren’t aware of what’s left still to do.
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A schedule that includes FCS Playoff qualifiers Montana and Eastern Washington, as well as the opener against Iowa State, leading into the Missouri Valley Football Conference gauntlet is no small task. Having to attack that while needing those “who’s that?” players to become “there he goes again” players is what makes the next month so crucial.
“Half that team that takes the field (to start the year) will have less than one game of experience. How do we get that inexperience to play at the level you need to win with the schedule we’re up against?” Farley said. “How do the coaches develop a plan for those first-year players to be successful but still have the Karters and Aarons be successful if we give them the support cast — how can we let them shine surrounded by a nucleus of young players? It’s a combination of the plan fitting the group, which is different than what we’ve had.”
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