116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s ability to challenge for a Missouri Valley Football Conference championship this season is poised to come down to the play of its offensive line.
Since 2015, when the Panthers broke multiple program rushing records, including averaging 233.3 yards per game, they haven’t eclipsed 133.4 yards per game since 2018 and bottomed out this spring at 103.4 yards per game.
That inability to establish a run game has affected UNI’s passing game, most notably nullifying the play-action pass and making life difficult on its skill players as a result.
Headed into his fourth season as offensive line coach, Ryan Clanton told The Gazette he’s as confident as ever in his position, especially as his relationship with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson continues to grow.
“I’ve really gotten used to our (offensive coordinator) and head coach,” Clanton said. “When I first got here, I didn’t know the (culture). I knew the culture I came out of and I fit in (here) off the bat, which was amazing, but now that I’m going into year four, I really understand it and I live it now. For me, it’s a really good feeling to have that (knowledge) that you’ve been there and you’ve seen it and you know how the program wants to be run.”
Clanton’s confidence is in part boosted by the return of left tackle Trevor Penning, who’s poised to be UNI’s next offensive lineman selected in the NFL Draft after Spencer Brown was taken in the third round this spring by the Buffalo Bills.
Penning, a behemoth at 6-foot 7 and 321 pounds, is the “nastiest, most physical” player Clanton said he’s ever encountered in his playing or coaching career.
“I’ve never seen anything like this kid,” Clanton said. “If you spent a day with him and rode in the car with him, went to his house, went to practice, came home from practice — if you just observed him, you would know just from one day of seeing it. You can’t teach it. It’s something that you’re born with. His motor doesn’t stop.”
Outside of Penning’s stranglehold on the left tackle position, UNI’s offensive line is largely unsettled.
Center Mason Neisen and guard Nick Ellis, both starters in 2019, are set to return from injuries that kept them out of the spring season.
Neisen’s position was filled by Erik Sorensen and Chase Arends, who both return and figure to challenge for a starting spot. Sorensen is also poised to compete for a spot at guard with Ellis, along with Jared Penning, Matthew Vanderslice and Hayden Amos, among others.
Meanwhile, right tackle Antione Frazier — who started all seven games this spring after transferring from Kansas — will face competition from Tristan Roper and any of the aforementioned guards who have also seen time at tackle.
“We didn’t have a game in the whole spring that we started the same five in the same five positions,” Clanton said. “All that means is that we got a bunch of guys playing experience and then also people that have already played different positions on different sides. We do have a pretty healthy, competitive group coming back, so I’m excited about that.”