Wisconsin transfer Keelon Brookins steps up in versatile role for UNI defense

Brookins emerges as nickel linebacker for 5-4 Panthers

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CEDAR FALLS — Take a deep dive into Northern Iowa’s defensive turnaround and Keelon Brookins’ name will come up.

A graduate transfer from Wisconsin, Brookins is excelling at a position UNI (5-4, 4-2) head coaches have routinely spoke of as critical to the success or failure of their defense. It’s a position Brookins said himself is “key.”

The official stats list the former Rivals 4-star defensive back as a linebacker, but there’s a lot more that’s asked and expected of the position than of your typical outside linebacker. He blitzes, covers receivers, running backs or tight ends — man-to-man or in zone coverage — and it also sets the edge in the run game against 300-plus pound offensive linemen.

UNI’s coaches call it their nickel linebacker, and since Week 7 and their 38-18 win over then-No. 7 South Dakota State, Brookins’ role in the defensive turnaround at the position has been as big as anyone’s.

Coming to UNI after playing three years at Wisconsin, Brookins was looked at as an unknown commodity heading into the season, despite his four-year run as a Badger. He didn’t earn his first start until that win over SDSU and the six-game wait may have, according to Brookins, been the result of some extra ego.

“Honestly, sometimes you go through your negative thoughts. That’s human nature,” Brookins said. “But I have a great supporting cast with my family and friends, and I have a great supporting cast with my coaches and teammates here. They told me to keep my head down and continue to work hard, because I can honestly say that I came in with a bigger ego than I should have. I’m not saying I didn’t work hard. I needed to go out there and prove and earn the trust of my coaches more and that’s what I went out and did.”

D’Shawn Dexter starred at the position in 2015 and 2016 for the Panthers, averaging just shy of five tackles, nearly a tackle for loss per game, and four takeaways in 14 games.

Six weeks into the season Brookins had earned the trust of his coaches and was one of a number of personnel changes made to inject life into a middling defense. But, to Brookins’ surprise he wasn’t going to be playing rover safety. Where he had been practicing since first arriving in Cedar Falls. Instead, he would be up near the line of scrimmage, mixing it up with the biggest and ugliest of football’s big and uglies.

“Leading up to the bye (week) I was still playing rover safety,” Brookins said. “I had a great week of practice so that Monday coming into (game week) position coach, Coach (Johnson) came in and he’s like, ‘Farley said you had a great week of practice, you’re moving to nickel (linebacker).’ I was like, ‘nickel? That’s like in the box, blitzing.’ But I had a linebacker background at Wisconsin so I knew I could do it.”

Through his four starts Brookins has done it, producing Dexter-like numbers, and then some. He is making plays at the very position UNI counts on it. Perhaps no bigger play has been made this season for UNI than last week’s game-clinching 29-yard interception return by Brookins in the Panthers 34-29 win over then-No. 6 South Dakota.

“We go into that play, we were in cover-5,” Brookins said. “The quarterback was flustered and he got out of the pocket, and I believe Seth Thomas, he forced him to make a bad throw. I stayed true to my drop. I was a curl, hash-mark dropper. It was one of those things — a gift — he lobbed it up and I found it with my eyes and I thought, ‘I got to take it (all the way).’”

Brookins and the Panthers will be searching for their fourth win in five games on Saturday at 2 p.m. when they take on Missouri State (3-6, 2-4).

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