CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football reported to fall camp Wednesday, so it’s time to take a look at what Coach Mark Farley’s defensive depth chart looks like, and to shed light on roster turnover and the positions most likely to see battles.
The Panthers lost two starters from their 2017 defensive line, a line that was versatile enough to play three- and four-man fronts effectively a season ago.
Seventy-nine tackles and 10 for loss left campus with Adam Reth’s graduation, so Farley and defensive line coach David Braun have their work cut out to replace that production. Reth was a non-glamorous defensive lineman who played at a high level, routinely setting the edge against the run and making plays despite seeing his share of double teams.
Bryce Douglas receiving a sixth year of eligibility certainly helps the depth charts interior, but Seth Thomas, Brawntae Wells or Marcel Minnifield will need to prove during camp they’re ready to be the next man up at the other available spots.
Jared Farley’s departure leaves an unquestionable hole in the middle of UNI’s defense. Coach Farley’s youngest son’s on-field intellect was unmatched, and therefore his playmaking was a constant.
Duncan Ferch is a returning starter and seems poised for a career year after ranking second on the team in tackles (94) last season. Jake Hartford showed a lot of potential as a backup in 2017, but he’ll compete in camp with Chris Kolarevic, Alfonzo Lambert, Blake Thomas and a few other promising underclassmen for playing time.
Rickey Neal leads the way at outside linebacker after racking up 9.5 sacks in 2017. Neal has been UNI’s most dynamic pass-rusher the past two seasons and is poised to do the same in 2018. Alfonzo Lambert and Blake Thomas could find time at outside, depending on how things shakeout in the middle.
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Christian Perez and Desmond Chapple are intriguing wild cards. Both have the measurables and talent to be a force at outside linebacker, but other issues have kept that from being realized during their UNI careers. After redshirting last season, Perez is poised to get a shot during camp to prove he belongs on the field. Chapple missed 2017 with a knee injury and flashed during padded spring practices, so his chances at playing time may be greater than Perez’s.
If only one of the two find their way on the field, it could mean a major boost is in store for UNI’s pass rush. If both do, MVFC quarterbacks will need to be on high alert.
Perhaps the biggest shoes to fill headed into 2018 for UNI is in its secondary.
The graduations of safety Elijah Campbell and cornerback Malcolm Washington cannot be overstated. However, 12th-year defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson has a reputation for finding the right combinations for the back end of his defense and the talent exists to do the same once again.
Xavior Williams enters camp as the no. 1 cornerback after a breakout redshirt freshman season that saw him grab four interceptions, break up eight passes and total 30 tackles. However, there’s no considerable favorite for who will line up at the other cornerback spot. It’s still possible a Division I transfer could factor in, or, Austin Evans, Isaiah Nimmers and Nikholi Jaghai likely will battle it out for the spot.
Moving back to safety, Jaghai also will be firmly in the mix there, along with veteran A.J. Allen. Allen has battled shoulder issues throughout his career, but is highly regarded for his ability to lead the communication in the defensive backfield. Underclassmen Korby Sander and Suni Lane each made three starts in 2017 and are likely to be in the mix. Lane, however, was a regular at Johnson’s “nickel linebacker” position for most of spring practices.