CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football opens spring practice on Monday. Fifteen practices are scheduled leading up to its spring game on Friday, April 27.
After an 8-5 season that ended in the FCS quarterfinals, the Panthers return the majority of their offense that led the FCS in red-zone efficiency.
Here are three things to watch on offense during UNI’s spring season:
1. Quantifying continuity
After having seven new assistant coaches to begin the 2017 season Mark Farley’s staff had just two departures this offseason, both on defense. The Panthers stand to benefit from a level of continuity they haven’t had in a number of seasons, as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach John Bond enters his second year as play-caller alongside senior quarterback Eli Dunne, who enters his second season as starter.
Given their MVFC competition, the Panthers are in need of whatever level of boost they’ll receive from continuity at play-caller and quarterback, along with a healthy Marcus Weymiller in the backfield.
“We really struggled at times, especially early in the season, to consistently run the ball,” Bond said. “That will certainly be a point of emphasis this spring, about feeling like you’ve got a consistent run game. If you’re playing outdoors and the wind is blowing 40 miles an hour, it’s hard to have a passing game sometimes with that wind like it is here in the Midwest. There were times where we ran it well, and there were other times where we didn’t, so that’s kind of when we got in trouble when we couldn’t run it real well.”
UNI’s red-zone offense may have set the standard in the FCS last season, but the rest of its offense finished ninth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in total yards. However, Bond intends to stay true to what the offense excelled at in 2017 after having seen what a consistent run game provided down the stretch.
Dunne has spent the offseason working on his quickness and ability to extend plays, as well as staying true to his progressions. More broadly, Bond is hopeful that the workmanlike approach to red-zone offense a season ago can seep its way into the rest of the offense in year two.
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2. Seeking balance
UNI’s offense got off to an uneven start in 2017. Bond admitted as much when acknowledging the run-game struggles to begin the season while Weymiller was out with injury. Quickly examine Weymiller’s absence and find that of Dunne’s 11 interceptions in 2017, eight came in the four games without Weymiller.
“We’re hopeful that between Weymiller and all the backs that we’re getting ready to look at this spring, and then these young receivers and our tight ends, we feel like we’ve got a good enough group with Eli coming back,” Bond said. “We feel like we can improve a great deal on what we did last fall.”
Along with Weymiller, the Panthers return Trevor Allen and Christian Jegen to their 2018 backfield. However, Allen and Jegen first found their way onto the field as slot receivers and could see more snaps back at receiver depending on how UNI’s young depth at the position performs this spring. Alphonso Soko, Tyler Hoosman and Jaylen Campbell will each get opportunities this spring to work their way up the depth chart. However, Bond, along with head coach Mark Farley have each mentioned Purdue transfer Jack Wegher as a possible immediate contributor alongside Weymiller.
3. Replacing Fountain
After throwing for the most yards it had since 2005, UNI’s offense was arguably led in 2017 by the play-making ability of wide receiver Daurice Fountain. With Fountain graduated, Bond and Dunne are hoping to identify their next play-maker this spring.
After Briley Moore’s emergence at tight end last season — 494 yards and 38 receptions — the Blue Springs, Mo., product, along with receivers Jaylin James and Isaiah Weston, have the tools to step up and become the focal point of UNI’s play-making in 2018.
“I’m a huge proponent of tight ends,” Bond said. “You’re not truly spreading the field and you’re not making people defend the entire field if your tight ends and running backs aren’t catching the football.”