116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
FAYETTE — Anything worth doing is worth doing well.
Upper Iowa Coach Jason Hoskins wants to see that from players consistently and believes that is the way to elevate the program.
“These guys have to buy in to the fact we have to push and get better each day,” said Hoskins, who was promoted from defensive backs and special teams coach to head coach following the 2019 season. “Let’s wake up, let’s focus on what we’re going to do for the day, whether it’s academically, socially, athletically. These guys have to come in and get more out of their workouts every day.
“Get a chance to get to know one another. Get to that point where our guys truly care about themselves, truly care about the program.”
Upper Iowa embarks on its first season under Hoskins, who inherits a team that went 2-9 two years ago. The Peacocks were picked last in 14-team Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and seventh in the NSIC South Division. The Peacocks open the NCAA Division-II football season at home on Sept. 2 against Minnesota-Duluth.
“Any time you see you’re not picked at the top of the conference it does put a chip on your shoulder,” 2019 third-team All-America defensive end Erik Hansen said. “You take it with a grain of salt. It’s hard to tell who is at the top and bottom of the conference because we haven’t played in two years.
“We know what we have in this program. We’re excited to finally show what we’ve got.”
Hoskins was a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for the Peacocks from 2014-16, returning for the 2019 season. He replaced Tom Shea, who led the program for 11 years. Hoskins also had assistant coaching stints at Northern State and Minnesota-Duluth. He was a graduate assistant at Southern Illinois and was a student assistant at Loras and Rock College.
“On an X-and-O philosophy, I’m a defensive guy by nature,” Hoskins said. “I spent most of my career on the defensive side of the ball. I think if you’re playing good, sound defense, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated, and have your guys play fast and physical that energy on the defensive side, I think, trickles into the rest of your football team.”
Hoskins, a 2001 graduate of Dubuque Senior and Loras in 2005, said he is more of a hybrid coach — younger than other coaches but relies on old-school physical and mental toughness. Hansen was originally recruited by Hoskins and he has a strong rapport with players.
“We go way back,” Hansen said. “He’s been coaching me on and off for quite some time.
“He’s a great coach. He’s big on small details and making sure we do everything to the best of our ability.”
He has had to wait just as long as the players to take the field and begin the program’s rebuild.
“The guys are excited,” Hoskins said. “Any time you take that much time between competitions these guys are finally ready to go see somebody else.”
“The energy has been good. Our core guys here we’re trying to build this program around are saying the right things. This is important to them. I think everybody’s heads are in the right spot. They have to keep preparing to play in two weeks.”
Upper Iowa has more experience on the defense. Hansen returns as one of NSIC’s players to watch. He tallied 47 tackles, including 32 solo, and 18 1/2 for loss. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder from Burlington, Ill., registered 12 1/2 sacks, which ranked fifth nationally in D-II.
“He constantly works,” Hoskins said. “He knows he’s one of our better defensive linemen but that doesn’t stop him from continuing to work.”
Hansen is joined up front by returners Laith Smith, Samson Tufui and former Solon prep Zach Wegmann, whose brother, Spencer, is listed at Sam linebacker. Hoskins said Zach Wegmann has developed into the prototypical leader and a mentor for younger players.
“He is a phenomenal young man,” Hoskins said. “I’ve said this to the team that if everybody approached their day, approached football, school and life like Zach Wegmann does we would be hard to beat on Saturdays without putting any more talent in our room.
“There’s nobody that goes about their business, there are some that do a really good job of it, but nobody’s above him.”
Offensively, talented receivers will lead the way, including senior Alex Stevens. He amassed 1,464 yards and 15 touchdowns on 102 receptions in 2019. He is joined by D.J. Emsweller, Lane Canny, Xavier Saldana and Iowa State transfer Ryan Pritchard. Stevens will be leaned on heavily, according to Hoskins.
“He is a tough matchup,” Hoskins said. “Teams in this league will have to be aware of him.”
The question is who will get them the ball. Quarterback has been a highly-contested position. Zach Reader is back and started the two wins in 2019, throwing for more than 800 yards. He is being pushed by former Linn-Mar prep Marcus Orr and Iowa Western transfer T.J. Smith.
“We’re trying to get one of these guys to step up and take it,” Hoskins said. “It’s starting to sort itself out a little bit.”
The Peacocks face the same dilemma many programs have during the pandemic and canceled seasons. Rosters have been impacted, forcing the new coach to find a balance between talented recruits and experienced transfers that could make an immediate contribution.
Former University of Iowa player and Jesup prep, Brian Sadler, has joined the program and will serve as a guard, solidifying the interior line.
“We’ve gone the high school route, predominantly,” Hoskins said. “We have filled in spots where we just feel we have to get a guy here. If we don’t, it will be detrimental to our team.
“They had to be the right guy. They have been. They fit into our program really well. They have been able to provide that pop at those positions.”