CEDAR FALLS — Patience is a hard thing to have as a football coach.
There are only so many practices, so many reps and so many film sessions, and when a football team isn’t progressing like a coach wants it to, patience can run out in a hurry.
Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley's passion and aggressiveness as a coach is certainly well-known, and in the process of bringing along his retooled defense, his patience has worn thin a few times. The progress of an all-new secondary hasn’t always been where he wants it.
Sept. 3 is coming up fast.
“It’s easy to get worked up about it and think you should be going faster, but when you understand who you’re working with and the possibilities in the future, it’s a great deal,” Farley said. “Right now, it’s slow. You’d like to be up to game speed.
“Right now I spend so much time on defense just to bring it up to speed that that’s all that’s really on my mind.”
As of mid-last week, Farley and position coaches Brandon Lynch and Olaitan Oguntodu were less concerned about starting roles and more about who fits where in the defensive backfield.
The depth chart will sort itself out, he said, when he has players on the field who know where they need to be and when. Experience levels aren’t high across the board, especially in the secondary, so Farley has pushed them as hard as he ever has a position group.
It’s not always easy to draw the ire of Farley, but the players know it’s coming. Senior corner Ray Buchanan Jr. laughed when asked about it, and said as much as Farley gets on them because of mistakes and wanting them to be better, he also gets on them to see what they’re made of. Can the newer, inexperienced players handle the intensity? Can they use it?
So far, from a player perspective, the answers are yes.
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“A lot of the younger guys don’t know how he is and how it is in practice, but since camp has been going on, I feel like he does that on purpose to see how we respond to adversity,” Buchanan said. “I feel like the coaches here — Coach Farley, Coach Lynch, Coach (Bryce) Paup — all of them say ‘Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.’ You’ve got to come back and forget about what happened. You have to push through that.”
Still, as hard as they’re working, you can’t simulate game experience.
Senior Jamison Whiting and Buchanan are the only players in the secondary with more than three games played last season for the Panthers, and both saw almost all of their time on special teams. Buchanan totaled nine tackles, one interception and one pass defensed while seeing action in all 14 games. Whiting is the only player to have played a full game — in his freshman year — and finished with seven tackles, one interception and two passes defensed in 12 games played. D.J. Singleton is the only other player with notable time on the field, and he had one tackle in three games played.
Farley touted Whiting as the leader of that secondary group, and Whiting said at Media Day earlier this month that he’s using lessons learned from his former teammates every day. Deiondre Hall (Chicago Bears) and Makinton Dorleant (Green Bay Packers) aren’t bad examples.
“Watching D-Hall and Mak play throughout the years is a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Whiting said. “You want to be on the field, but you learn from the best people at the position. We know what we’re doing now, because of them. Now it’s about reiterating it to the rest of the guys. Now I have to teach the guys what we do at Northern Iowa.”
So who goes where?
Whiting and Buchanan have experience at cornerback, and Farley said Whiting “is a starting cornerback, I don’t think there’s any question about that.” Beyond them, the view is muddy.
Singleton is a Nebraska transfer, but played behind Tim Kilfoy and Edwin Young last season. Time at the position likely means he has a faster track to the field than others might. Sophomore Willie Beamon has upside coaches like, as do freshmen Xavior Williams and Cedar Rapids Washington grad Isaiah Nimmers, but they’re also in redshirt territory — if Farley can afford it.
Florida State transfer Tyrell Lyons has been another standout in terms of ability while coming off a torn ACL last year, and said Lynch has been his biggest help in acclimating him to UNI and this team.
Farley has toyed with putting him in different spots on the field. He’s run with the safeties, the linebackers and the defensive line. His athleticism, speed and field awareness make him a playmaker Farley wants to deploy anywhere and everywhere he can.
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“Getting back into the secondary is what I love to do, and also pass rushing just to give the team a different look,” Lyons said. “I just want to be the versatile guy I am, use the talent I was born with. Coaches are moving me around and using me the best way they can to get everything out of me. It’s going to be a process, but everything will work out fine. These coaches have been coaching forever. Coach Farley knows everything to expect.”
The Panthers have to have patience with the secondary, and Farley knows that.
But they all also know Iowa State, Montana and Eastern Washington aren’t months away, either. The now 16th-year head coach has been through all this before, and is ready for the bumps in the road. If history and the work he, Lynch and Oguntodu are doing are any indication, though, the bumps won’t last long.
“Until they get up to speed with what we’re trying to do, you can’t run fast until they understand what we’re doing,” Farley said. “It’s tough on any DB in camp, let alone a rookie. I think there’s still, in all fairness, another week where guys have a chance and we’ll see if they start showing up and being faster on the field. I anticipate who will be there for the most part.”
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