CEDAR FALLS — There wasn’t a team in the Football Championship Subdivision that faced the challenge Northern Iowa did a season ago with its cornerbacks.
The Panthers had to replace two cornerbacks who had gone to the NFL, and one of those replacements came via Fresno State transfer with Malcolm Washington.
The general consensus a season ago was the UNI defense would once again be good, maybe better than good, but if there was a vulnerable segment it was likely to be in the secondary.
That potential vulnerability turned into a strength with the addition of Washington, as well as another transfer in Elijah Campbell. Washington and Campbell earned All-Missouri Valley Football newcomer and second-team honors for their performances a year ago.
Washington said their togetherness among the secondary is what has it poised for bigger and better things in 2017, starting Saturday night at Iowa State.
“On the field we’re taking (communication) deep(er),” Washington said. “I just tell them — I don’t know if you’re aware of LeBron James when he goes into playoff mode — he goes ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ So he just locks in, he doesn’t look at the outside of anything. It’s the same way I feel (about us). We just lock in and focus. Everything is calm, and once you make plays the (visiting crowd) won’t be loud no more.”
Washington, and his teammates who lineup alongside him in the secondary on Saturday night in Ames, will face a tall task — literally and figuratively — with Iowa State’s wide receivers. Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler scored touchdowns in last year’s tightly contested, 25-20, UNI win. Lazard and Butler’s touchdown receptions were about as tightly contested as the game itself. The height and athleticism of the Cyclone receivers proved to be a pivotal factor a year ago, and figures to be as big of a factor Saturday night.
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“(I’ll) just study my opponent very well,” Washington said. “They’re good at going at catching the ball at the highest point. They run very good routes. So I have to go out there and trust my ability, trust the reads that we’ve been studying, along with their tendencies. It’s just a very tricky offense that you just have to really sit down and study.”
Earlier this month, The Gazette reported Campbell had been practicing at cornerback after playing all of the 2016 season at free safety. After the release of the depth chart this week, Campbell was listed as one of the Panthers two starters at corner. Campbell has experience at the position, most recently in 2014 with Iowa Western.
Elsewhere in the secondary, Wisconsin transfer Keelon Brookins has worked into the mix at strong safety, as has true freshman Suni Lane at the free safety spot.
Head coach Mark Farley said during his weekly news conference the secondary is one position in particular the Panthers will be rotating players as needed.