UNI Panthers

UNI spring football game: 4 things to watch

Strength of secondary among main concerns

Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley watches an open practice at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, April 15, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley watches an open practice at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, April 15, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s football team returns 14 of 22 starters from last fall’s FCS quarterfinal team.

The Panthers, 8-5 in 2017, will show what they’ve learned this spring Friday night in the annual spring game, kicking off at 6 p.m. inside the UNI-Dome.

Here are four things to keep an eye on:

The secondary

Who gets the reps and who “wins” in the secondary? The pads will be on and tackling will be allowed, but the best area on the field during a spring game is the defensive secondary against the offense’s pass-catchers.

With Elijah Campbell and Malcolm Washington gone and returning starter Xavior Williams likely to be held out, or at least limited, plenty of fresh faces will be in the mix. One of those fresh faces will be Christian Jegen, who switched from running back to safety when the spring began and has done well enough to stick. If the Panthers are unable to bring in any transfers before the fall, and Jegen continues to perform at the position, he could become a legitimate option.

Will quarterbacks Eli Dunne and Colton Howell, two experienced throwers, take advantage of that inexperienced secondary and create a summer of worry for the Panthers and their fans? Or, has defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson already found effective combinations for the defense’s back end?

The offensive line

At his spring news conference, head coach Mark Farley spent a lot of time talking offensive line and said he’d put an emphasis on spending personal time with the group that lost three members with experience this offseason. If Spencer Brown and Nick Ellis’ rehabilitation from offseason knee surgeries continues to go well, Farley and first-year offensive line coach Ryan Clanton will have endured a spring perfect for evaluating what kind of depth they have behind Cal Twait, Jackson Scott-Brown and Ezra Szczyrbak.

Ball-carrier battle

Purdue transfer Jack Wegher has run with the first team nearly all spring with Marcus Weymiller limited to non-contact drills after offseason ankle surgery. Farley may want to limit the amount of contact Wegher encounters Friday night given his stature on the depth chart, so expect John Nzombo and redshirt freshman Alphonso Soko to get plenty of opportunities. Trevor Allen also will be in the mix after moving back to running back from cornerback, where he began spring practices.

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Front-seven shakeout

The first five weeks last season featured 4-2-5 and 3-4 fronts, before ending with consistent multiple-front game plans.

The Panthers have returning athletes who have experience among the front-seven, which could mean plenty of similar looks. But the losses of Adam Reth, Preston Woods and Jared Farley could send the defense in a new direction. Farley and Johnson’s annual tradition is finding the best schematic fit, or fits, for the best 11 players. The sooner they can zero in on those formations and schemes the better. Perhaps one or more will take hold Friday night.

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