CEDAR FALLS — With Northern Iowa football approaching its first game week of 2018, there have been a number of developments throughout fall camp.
Here are three things to know before the 13th-ranked Panthers shift into prep for next Saturday’s game at No. 24 Montana at 8 p.m.
1. Interior offensive line solidified
On media day, UNI head coach Mark Farley mentioned a handful of names that would be in the mix for open spots at center and right guard. Those spots are now solidified. Mason Neisen, a redshirt freshman from Denver challenged for the open spot at center throughout the spring and fall but fell behind senior Ezrah Szczyrbak after suffering a minor injury.
“(Ezrah) really has taken a leadership role for us in that position,” Farley said. “As it turned out, it’s a great fit at a great time because he does have that leadership and he has that age to him, that maturity that it takes to be an effective offensive lineman, let alone the center of the offensive line.”
At right guard, redshirt sophomore Nick Ellis has emerged. Ellis was a rotational lineman last season and received one start at right tackle in week 11 against Missouri State before suffering a season-ending injury.
2. Effects of Isaiah Weston’s injury
Redshirt sophomore Isaiah Weston suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp. Weston was voted second team preseason All-Missouri Valley Football Conference after hauling in 22 catches for 380 yards and five touchdowns in 2017 and figured to be squarely in the mix with Jaylin James and tight end Briley Moore for most targets this season.
With Weston done for the season — Farley has confirmed he’ll get his year of eligibility back via a medical redshirt — the need for James and Jalen Rima to take another step in their development is now magnified.
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“I think a big part of our season is the development, the progress of Jalen Rima and Jaylin James,” Farley said. “This is really the year that we need to see progress. To have production at those positions — and when I say production it’s not just making the catches, it’s yards after the catch.”
3. Secondary starters have emerged
Perhaps the cloudiest section of UNI’s roster headed into fall camp was its secondary. Other than Xavior Williams at cornerback, there were no certainties anywhere else within the Panthers’ back five defenders. Roosevelt Lawrence, an Iowa Central transfer who was a 3-star recruit out of Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa, Fla., has emerged as the starter opposite Williams while former Cedar Rapids Washington prep Isaiah Nimmers has regularly rotated in and figures to get snaps in sub-packages.
At safety, Korby Sander, who started five games in 2017, will line up across from veteran A.J. Allen.
Sophomore Suni Lane has taken hold of UNI’s hybrid position — essentially a mix between a cornerback and linebacker.
“That’s a big position for us, it holds a lot of weight, it holds a lot of responsibility,” Farley said. “It takes a special talent to be physical enough to take on offensive linemen and agile enough to be a defensive back. (Suni’s) right there at that age where he has the things that it takes to be a safety, and yet he’s playing at a position I would call a linebacker.”