CEDAR FALLS — It’s rare anymore that an offseason in college football goes by without a team’s coaching staff losing one or more of its assistants.
That was the case at Northern Iowa this offseason.
Mark Farley saw his quarterbacks and wide receivers coaches move on for other opportunities, forcing the veteran head coach to tap into his Rolodex to search for replacements.
So, with an offensive staff featuring ages of 34, 32, 31 and 30, Farley made a point to target a veteran coach who could offer years of wisdom and experience.
Insert Shawn Watson.
Watson, who spent 2019 as an offensive quality control coach at Georgia, joined UNI in late March and brought 38 years of coaching experience with him, including nine previous gigs at FBS Power Five schools.
Perhaps most notable among Watson’s experience is a three-year stint at Louisville as the Cardinals’ offensive coordinator while Teddy Bridgewater broke numerous school records and earned many accolades before what’s become a successful NFL career.
Watson’s time at Nebraska also was a particularly special era. As the Cornhuskers offensive coordinator from 2007-2010, he helped guide quarterback Joe Ganz — UNI’s new wide receivers coach — to two 10-win seasons while setting 23 school records.
As Watson has gotten to know UNI’s offense and his room of quarterbacks he’ll now be guiding, he offered high praise for starting QB Will McElvain. After a record-breaking freshman season from the former Des Moines Lincoln Railsplitter, Watson went into detail about one of his first at-length discussions with the Panthers QB.
“I told (Will), here’s the good things; I see passer instincts,” Watson said. “He’s a natural passer. Mechanically he’s very efficient, he’s a one-piece passer. He gets the ball out quick. He’s accurate. He knows how to throw guys open in second level and third-level throws. So he’s got all those intangible things.
“I (then) said (to Will), OK, here’s the humbling part, you had a really successful year, but there’s a lot more you can do. You left offense on the field.”
Watson continued, offering comparisons of McElvain’s work ethic to former great quarterbacks he’s coached.
“Will is driven (though). He really is driven,” Watson said. “He reminds me of Joe Ganz — who just joined our staff. I had him at Nebraska. He reminds me of Joel Klatt. Reminds me of Teddy (Bridgewater) in terms of (how he) loves to compete.”
Watson also is no stranger to the FCS and the Missouri Valley Football Conference. He played at Southern Illinois and returned to his alma mater from 1994-1996 as head coach.
He’s also known Farley for years and, prior to his hiring, described how the two have always stayed in touch and even occasionally been a source of knowledge for one another.
“Probably one of the driving forces behind (coming here) was my relationship with Mark (Farley),” Watson said. “I obviously knew Terry Allen was the head coach here during the time I was at Southern and Northern was ‘the program’ in the Missouri Valley. He was kind enough to really give me a lot. He poured a lot into me and we became good friends. And I thought Mark and I got to know each other. (UNI is) one of the top-five programs in the country.”
Despite only being on the job for only a few months, Watson already has made a good impression on his new colleagues. Recently UNI offensive coordinator Ryan Mahaffey offered unsolicited praise.
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“Coach Watson has done a great job coming in and sharing his wealth of knowledge and his experience to give us a fresh set of eyes on what we did last year,” Mahaffey said.
Watson and the Panthers enter 2020 with high expectations, returning 17 starters. They are ranked second in Athlon’s recent preseason poll.
UNI welcomes back upperclassmen Monday for voluntary workouts and opens its season Sept. 5 at Iowa.