CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football reports for fall camp Thursday, so it’s time to take a look at what Mark Farley’s depth chart looks like, and to shed light on roster turnover and the positions most likely to see battles.
After an 8-5 season that ended with a FCS quarterfinal loss to conference foe South Dakota State, the Panthers stand to benefit from the return of a number of starters and regulars. There also are a number of key players on schedule for full participation in fall camp after losing their 2017 season to injury.
Here’s the 2018 outlook for UNI’s offense:
After throwing for 2,704 yards, 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2017, Eli Dunne returns as the Panthers’ unquestioned starter with expectations higher than they’ve ever been.
Dunne has a career record of 10-7, but most noticeable within his record is zero wins against conference stalwart North Dakota State. If Dunne wants to cement his legacy in Cedar Falls it will require a win against the MVFC’s gatekeeper.
Health along the offensive line, along with a running game that’s bolstered on paper, should only help pave the way toward a career year for the big-armed senior.
Marcus Weymiller’s return from a high ankle sprain in Week 6 last season came just in the nick of time. After his return, the Panthers won six of their last eight games.
The former walk-on from Waukon rushed for 829 yards on 200 carries in 10 games. Weymiller’s presence pumped much needed balance into the Panthers’ offense and gave it an identity after it had sputtered its way to a 2-3 start without him.
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The addition of Purdue transfer Jack Wegher should only help UNI’s run game, and a trio of underclassmen led by Alphonso Soko also could help UNI become a more consistent running team in 2018.
Daurice Fountain’s graduation and subsequent selection in the fifth round of the NFL Draft this spring leaves as big of a hole at the No. 1 spot as the Panthers have had since Mike Furrey’s or Eddie Berlin’s eligibility ran out.
There are a number of receivers with game experience who have shown flashes, but at least one of the group of Jaylin James, Isaiah Weston, Jalen Rima and Aaron Graham must emerge as the reliable and consistent target Fountain became for Dunne a season ago if expectations are to be met.
After racking up 38 catches for 494 yards last season, Briley Moore is as poised for a breakout as anyone on UNI’s roster.
The 6-foot-3, 242-pound junior is a do-it-all tight end, capable of in-line blocking or splitting out wide and beating defensive backs and winning contested throws. Moore has the tools to become the focal point of the Panthers’ passing game and offensive coordinator John Bond didn’t rule that out when he spoke to The Gazette before spring practices.
Senior Elias Nissen should continue to be a solid all-around contributor for an offense that routinely employed two-tight end sets in 2017.
So, while it may not be dramatic, the real battle at tight end will be on the third slot of Farley’s depth chart.
On paper, the Panthers have an offensive line capable of going toe-to-toe with the best defensive lines FCS football has to offer. However, due to injury and the learning curve of Year 1 of a new offense, the group never reached its potential in 2017.
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Senior Cal Twait is ensconced at left tackle along with junior Jackson Scott-Brown at left guard. The duo arguably is the best on the left side of any offensive line in the FCS with a combined 46 starts.
Third-year sophomore Spencer Brown rocketed up the depth chart during the 2017 fall camp and was the starter at right tackle. However, his season was lost after five effective starts because of a knee injury. Brown’s rehab is on track for him to be a full participant in fall camp, according to Farley, and he’ll likely have senior Ezra Szczyrbak next to him at guard.
Center is unquestionably the position to keep an eye on as camp begins. First-year offensive line coach Ryan Clanton mentioned Mason Neisen as a promising performer post-spring ball, but Clanton has a sizable group of underclassmen to evaluate and consider. Parkersburg native Nick Ellis also will figure into the competition at right guard and center after making one start last season before being sidelined with a knee injury.