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UNI football summer check-in: Defensive backs focused on takeaways
Panthers are talent-rich and deep in the secondary this fall
CEDAR FALLS — With preseason camp underway, Northern Iowa’s defensive backfield is focused on takeaways.
UNI’s turnover rate dropped to just one per game in its spring season after boasting a 2.21 turnover per game average its previous four seasons.
A return to normalcy at practice after a season defined by COVID-19 protocols is poised to make a difference, but defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson pointed the finger at himself for the drop off.
“The honest answer is I need to do a better job, for lack of a better term, freeing them up so that they have the confidence to go make those plays,” Johnson said. “I’m going to have to adjust some of the things and maybe the way that we were working on it with this group of guys last fall, or last spring.”
Like its group of linebackers, UNI’s defensive backs are a talent-rich, deep group that should allow Johnson to continue to be schematically diverse this season.
Omar Brown’s emergence also gives Johnson freedom, as UNI’s opponents largely refused to throw to the all-America cornerback’s side of the field this spring.
“Omar is a very driven young man. He wants to be great,” Johnson said. “He’s a really good football player. He’s got a lot of room where he can continue to grow and continue to get better.”
At free safety, UNI got a boost from Minnesota transfer Benny Sapp III last season. Sapp was fifth on the team in tackles (33), grabbed one interception, broke up two passes and recovered two fumbles. That production happened despite a short amount of time to prepare.
“What we did in the spring was I just said, ‘Look, I don’t need you to be the defensive coordinator, I need you to be the free safety,’” Johnson said. “He got here in January and we played our first game in February. That kid worked his tail off to learn the things that we needed him to learn. He’s got plenty of potential to be a really good football player for us.”
Veteran Korby Sander is poised to be alongside Sapp again this season at safety.
Sander, who broke out in 2018 with 93 tackles and three interceptions, missed 2019 with a knee injury and reestablished himself this spring.
“It took him a little bit of time, I think, initially in the spring, to kind of get himself back (and) recovered from his injury,” Johnson said. “But once he started to get confident in what he was doing it just kind of all started to come back to him. He played better at the end of the spring than he did at the beginning. I think that’s important.”
Sander and Austin Evans — who started at cornerback opposite Brown this spring — offer Johnson two experienced defensive backs who have played multiple positions. Both have experience at nickelback and could easily move around if injury or scheme dictates.
Beyond the starters from this spring are three freshmen who have multiple years experience in the program. Safety Trey Lasek and cornerbacks Stefan Black and Edwin Dearman offer the Panthers talented, capable depth should a need arise.