CEDAR FALLS — When Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley held a news conference before fall practices began, he pointed out multiple times the need to get more players prepared to play this season due to the potential for COVID-19 cases.
Add to that the fact UNI plays a multiple, intricate defensive scheme well known for its mental challenges and is only in year two of coordinator Ryan Mahaffey’s offense, and the difficulty of having twice as many players ready to contribute at each position becomes exceptional.
Entering his 20th season at UNI, Farley says that knowing the impacts COVID-19 could have on their spring season, the preparation to get more players ready to play began this summer.
“Since June, I would say is when I really got into this,” Farley said. “Then, even more so once I’ve seen other teams start to play and staying on top of what’s going on in the (FBS), as far as the problems they’re having (and) the cancellations being caused. I’m trying to learn by watching others go through the experience before we’re going to go through (it) of what’s important and what’s changed in football right now and what’s factoring into these games due to COVID.”
Farley says it’s “when, not if” for being prepared to pull deep from their depth chart on short notice. As a result, he and the rest of his staff have altered their practices, having what he calls a “two spot” with an offense and defense running plays on both ends of the field simultaneously.
“A great example is just think about repetitions,” Farley said. “We’re developing a two-deep every single minute of every practice by how we rep our players. Then, we work the threes and the fours in with those two (separate groups).”
Another element to consider is how much or little to trim down the playbook if one or more starters are lost for a week or two.
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“I think (that) in some portion will be applied,” Farley said. “How we’re trying to work through that right now to prepare is I want to make sure that my cornerback is getting to understand how to play safety. That my safety is playing the linebacker spot. That my defensive tackles that have the physical ability to play defensive end, so we’re multiple. Who’s the swing element to each position, so if you lose a certain person or certain group, who can fill that void and you’re still playing with your best 11?”
From a player's perspective, there’s an edge to be gained ahead of the spring season. The catalyst for the unusual circumstances — COVID-19 — is unquestionably unfortunate, but it’s made it so players further down on the depth chart can motivate themselves knowing that they could quickly become a starter or first backup any given week.
“Yes, they’re all excited because they’re all getting reps, but what they have to understand is they’re not just repetitions. To me, they’re opportunities,” Farley said. “So, keep making progress and you’ll start to gain the trust of the coaching staff and our program. But, to gain the trust you’ve got to be productive and make progress, so there’s an accountability factor. With these reps comes a high responsibility that you need to be prepared and keep making progress if we’re going to continue to invest the repetitions. Otherwise, the next young man behind you, we need to give him that opportunity.”