CEDAR FALLS — With its run game lacking consistency and explosiveness, it was Northern Iowa’s wide receivers who largely made the big plays last season.
Namely it was Isaiah Weston who made those plays. His 1,053 yards receiving and 10 touchdown catches helped lead the Panthers to the FCS quarterfinals and a 10-win season.
However, before Weston established himself early last season, questions surrounded the position after the graduation of Daurice Fountain, who was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
Senior Jaylin James capped off a solid career in 2019 with 442 yards, 32 receptions and four touchdowns, but never became a consistent threat for quarterback Will McElvain — even when Weston missed three games and parts of others with a foot injury.
James and slot-receiver Aaron Graham graduated and UNI offensive coordinator Ryan Mahaffey is likely looking for more than the 68 receptions, 858 yards and four touchdowns the senior duo provided last season from what’s left in the room.
Especially considering the fact Weston will sneak up on absolutely none of UNI’s opponents this season.
Weston, a rare fourth-year sophomore after a 2016 redshirt and 2018 medical redshirt (torn ACL), quickly became the Panthers’ unquestioned No. 1 wideout in 2019. He routinely took the top off defenses, proven by his FCS-best 24.49 yards per reception.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Mahaffey didn’t hesitate to steer McElvain toward Weston when opponents covered him one-on-one. McElvain’s aggressive nature also helped boost the deep-threat duo. He was unafraid to throw Weston’s way, regardless of how tight coverage was.
Weston’s receiving yards ended up accounting for 38 percent of UNI’s total passing offense and 27 percent of its total touchdowns. So, when the sophomore missed three of the last four games in 2019, the Panthers offense found itself searching for ways to move the football with little success. That ultimately cost the Panthers in their 17-0 semifinal loss at James Madison.
James and Graham proved to be solid contributors when Weston was out, but couldn’t force defenses to respect them as deep threats.
Deion McShane got off to a fast start in 2019 and appeared to be on a path toward being a formidable complement to Weston after UNI’s first four games. The sophomore slot-receiver led all receivers with 21 receptions after four games, but suffered an upper body injury in Week 6 against North Dakota State and ended up missing six games. Despite returning later in the season, he never returned to his early form and grabbed only four more catches.
McShane will be right back in the mix with plenty of opportunity to demand targets with a good fall camp, but will need to prove he can be durable to reach his high potential.
Junior Suni Lane and freshman Logan Wolf both flashed in limited opportunities.
Lane had one of UNI’s most clutch and important catches in 2019 — a 31-yard reception that set up a go-ahead, game-winning field goal for a second-round playoff win at South Dakota State.
A 6-foot-3 big-bodied receiver, Lane settled in at the position last season after moving between offense and defense as an underclassman. Much like McShane, the opportunity to demand more targets with a productive fall camp exists.
Wolf redshirted, but UNI Coach Mark Farley and his offensive staff used the true freshman with mild success under the four-game rule. The Cedar Falls native had a 61-yard touchdown catch in the Panthers’ 38-7 season-finale win against Western Illinois. Wolf was a priority recruit for UNI and his limited snaps in 2019 made it obvious as to why.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Headed into 2020 UNI knows what it has with Weston and has plenty of talent and potential elsewhere at the position, but consistency, durability and development will be needed throughout the position.
McShane, Lane, Wolf and transfers Kenden Robinson and Quan Hampton will all get the opportunity to prove they can provide the playmakers UNI’s offense needs.