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CEDAR FALLS — What a difference a year makes.
Headed into the 2015 season, Northern Iowa quarterback Aaron Bailey was the new kid on campus — “I had to start over,” he said. Headed into the 2016 season, Bailey is infinitely more confident and comfortable than he was then.
Granted, running for 1,334 yards and 19 touchdowns while throwing for 1,656 and 13 more touchdowns through the air sure help those two things. But more than that, he’s had a year since hitting that reset button, and he very much is happy where he’s at on and off the field.
“You get to that point — it’s time to play again. I’m so ready for this season,” Bailey said. “I feel very comfortable, but not complacent. There’s always more to get out there within the team and out there within myself. I feel, personally, very comfortable and at ease with how things are, but at the same time, there’s always that extra edge that I want something more.
“I don’t take life too seriously. I enjoy life; I enjoy doing what I do.”
Bailey didn’t have the best start to his Panther career. The first three games of last year were, by both his and his coach’s account, a struggle.
But through the doubts and struggles, Bailey emerged obviously as a better player, but to the UNI coaching staff’s relief, a better leader. The way he’s led has seriously impressed Coach Mark Farley, who told a story on Friday’s Media Day about Bailey addressing the team in an unrehearsed speech.
It was emblematic of how far Bailey has come and the stature he now has on the team.
“He’s put the time in; now we know what we do and we know his skillset, and he’s come a long way,” Farley said. “To his credit, he spoke to the team the other night. What I took from that talk, he was speaking about accountability and those types of things. He was talking about his experience, and that’s when people start to listen.
“He explained many things in a short amount of time. He hit all the bullet points you bring in 10 guest speakers to tell them. He’s made a difference that way. He had all the naysayers out there, but put the blinders on and did his job to the best of his ability, and the way he was asked to do it.”
The quarterback is the lightning rod for a team, good or bad. So many players’ production depend on the job he does, so the relationship the starter has with the rest of the team is a vital component to long-term success.
In that case, the Panthers sit in a pretty good position — at least if you ask his teammates. Offensive linemen Cal Twait and Robert Rathje both talked at length about how Bailey is one of, if not the most popular guys on the team.
Having the most important position filled by a guy who’s won over the locker room so decisively is invaluable.
“I’d say now he’s probably every guy on the team’s favorite guy to be around,” Twait said. “He’s a really good guy, a great leader and a heck of a football player. I think that’s huge. You know that guy back there, you really want to protect him. It’s not like you wouldn’t if anyone else is back there, but you have that extra incentive. He’s in it for you. He’s in it for the team. He has his own goals, I’m sure, but you know he’s in it to accomplish our goals.”
Bailey got a gift of sorts this offseason, too.
Yes, new quarterbacks coach Collin Klein is that Collin Klein — the one who piloted Kansas State to all those wins and to third in the Heisman Trophy voting, and the one who did it while having the reputation for being a stronger runner than a passer. When Bailey heard Klein had been hired, he kind of couldn’t believe it, and said, “I thought someone was messing with me. … It’s a blessing to work with him. I try to learn everything I can because he had such success at that (Big 12) level, and he was one of the best quarterbacks at that time. I’m trying to do the things he did.”
Klein acknowledged he sees a lot of himself in Bailey on the field, and their similarities will make both their jobs easier — and absolutely has made their relationship easy to form.
“It’s been tremendous so far. He’s a man of very, very high character; his core values are incredible and his maturity is impressive,” Klein said. “It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago I was in his seat. To be able to help him in that way (with our similarities) is special. I come from a unique perspective, having dealt with that. It is hard when people are trying to make him someone he’s not. It’s a hard situation to be in. The best advice Coach (Bill) Snyder gave me when I was going through that was, ‘You’ve got to be yourself.’ As long as you’re the best Collin Klein or Aaron Bailey you can be, it’ll take care of itself.”
No on at UNI’s Media Day was a body language expert, but everyone in attendance agreed Bailey carried himself like a young man who was ready to carry a football team. He’s worked hard to earn the trust of his teammates and his coaches, Bailey said.
He certainly will have plenty of help, but Bailey said Friday he’s ready to be that guy. He’s in a great place, and for a person like him, being in a good place personally goes a long way to fueling the player he is on the field.
“I’ve worked hard because I was the new kid on the block. I had to start over,” Bailey said. “I had to start completely over in terms of school, in terms of football, on the field and off the field. I had to work hard to gain the trust of my coaches and of the team. I had to get that trust. I had to put in that extra work. I needed that extra edge so I could get that trust from my teammates and coaches.
“I want to continue to be a great person. I want to walk the walk and talk the talk. I want to continue to grow as a person, learn from mistakes and not repeat those mistakes.”
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