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4 things to watch as UNI football spring practice begins
With Jeremiah Johnson back as defensive coordinator, defense needs to bounce back
CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s football team begins spring practices Wednesday with expectations of a return to the FCS playoffs after a 6-5 record in 2022 left it out of the 24-team field.
The combination of a returning, prolific quarterback in Theo Day, the return of three former longtime coaches — Rick Nelson (offensive line), Jeremiah Johnson (defensive coordinator) and Keelon Brookins (secondary) — and its most roster depth since 2020 has only heightened expectations.
“This is a huge spring in my opinion,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “We’ve got a whole new defensive line (and) a lot of new defensive players. We’ve got a new offensive line. We’ve got some talent at quarterback, there’s no question about that. So how quickly can we get them in a groove?”
Here are four things to watch throughout spring practices.
1. Reestablishing the defense
The return of Johnson cannot be overstated. He was one of the most respected defensive play-callers in the FCS before departing for the same position at Toledo last season.
Johnson described to The Gazette how his move to Toledo could be a benefit for the Panthers, as it forced him to put the defensive scheme into a playbook for the first time and to simplify its language to teach it efficiently.
Available online team statistics that go back to 2006 reveal the 25.73 points per game UNI allowed in 2022 was the most of those 17 seasons.
With Johnson back, and the addition of multiple intriguing transfers, the ingredients seem in place for a much-needed bounce back in 2023.
2. Offensive line
Offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder rejuvenated UNI’s offense a season ago, but did so with four senior starters on the offensive line.
All-Missouri Valley Football Conference third-team honoree Jared Penning is the only returning starter, while Tristan Roper and Blake Anderson are the only others with substantive in-game experience. Roper has seen the majority of his snaps at right tackle, while Anderson played center a couple times in 2022 as Erik Sorensen battled injury.
Assuming those three have the inside track on starting spots, Iowa transfer Josh Volk is likely to be among a group of as many as a dozen players who could legitimately compete for two remaining spots.
Farley said he likes the young, inexperienced offensive linemen. His optimism will need to be proven correct this spring so Reeder’s offense can continue to produce.
3. Running back
Dom Williams and Vance McShane were a dynamic one-two punch for the Panthers last season, running for 83 percent of UNI’s 1,721 rushing yards.
With both graduated, Harrison Bey-Buie and Josh Jenkins represent the most experienced backs on the roster. The two combined for just 31 carries in 2022.
A 6-foot-3, 225-pound UTSA transfer, Ty Edwards — a 2021 NJCAA first team All-American at Hutchinson Community College — may be best positioned to compete with Bey-Buie and Jenkins for carries.
4. Defensive line
UNI finished tied for last in the MVC in sacks (17) last season, 22 behind first-place South Dakota State.
The Panthers have attempted to fix their pass rush woes by adding Memphis transfer Warren Peeples and Kansas State transfer Cartez Crook-Jones. Both are former three-star recruits and Peeples is a former junior college All-American — registering 12 1/2 sacks in 2021 at Highland Community College.
Peeples and Crook-Jones will battle for snaps alongside notable returnees Caden Houghtelling, Devin Rice, Cordarrius Bailey, Khristian Boyd, Cannon Butler and Jack Kriebs.
Reestablishing the defense will start with Johnson and defensive line coach Bryce Paup getting pass rush production back toward the top of the conference.