CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football began its 2019 fall camp last Friday with more than 30 newcomers on its roster, 16 returning starters and a four-way quarterback competition.
Needless to say, there are plenty of questions for head coach Mark Farley to find answers to before the Panthers take on Iowa State on Aug. 31 at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames.
1. Who’s the QB of the defense?
Besides having a quality quarterback in place, the Panthers have historically been at their best when there’s an unquestioned starter at middle linebacker. Over the past half decade, Jake and Jared Farley held down the position at an all-conference level, while last season Duncan Ferch stepped into the role as a senior and led the Panthers with 113 tackles.
Without a clear incumbent starter, Farley, a former Gateway Conference co-defensive player of the year at middle linebacker for UNI, will need to call upon his experience and instincts to identify the next leaders who will make the calls for his defense.
Chris Kolarevic racked up 65 tackles in an injury-shortened six-game season in 2018 and appears to be the favorite. Farley, however, has stressed the need for additional talent and depth at linebacker since the end of 2018 and a number of players, including newcomers Spencer Cuvelier and Skyler Meyers along with returnee Bryce Flater, are in the mix.
2. How should the secondary be configured?
The Panther defense typically hits its stride each season once the secondary is settled, too. With 2018 starter Korby Sander out for the year with a knee injury and A.J. Allen lost to graduation, there are answers to be found in fall camp for UNI’s secondary.
Christian Jegen was effective at safety in 2018 after a position change from running back. All-Missouri Valley Football Conference cornerback Xavior Williams practiced at safety throughout the spring. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Austin Evans, Roosevelt Lawrence and Shakespeare Williams all return with varying levels of experience. Newcomers Micah Mayberry, Edwin Dearman and Spencer Perry also appear to be figuring into the competition.
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3. Who’s kicking?
Austin Errthum made 24 of 29 attempts in 2018 and had six games where he made three field goals or more. Needless to say, he was an integral part of UNI’s success in 2018 and a case can be made that the Panthers don’t make the playoffs last year without his left leg.
Errthum displaced incumbent starter Sam Drysdale before last season after Drysdale had made 17 of 21 attempts in 2017. Drysdale, a senior, is the favorite to win the job back this year but faces competition from returnee Nate Murphy and freshmen Matthew Cook and Isaac Jorgenson.
4. How can the talent at wide receiver be utilized?
On paper, the Panthers corps of wide receivers is as talented as any in FCS. Add to that Briley Moore’s talent at tight end and whoever is named starting quarterback should have no gripes about who he’s got to throw the ball to. That said, the ball still has to accurately make its way to UNI’s pass catchers while opponents will undoubtedly get creative with how they game-plan to take particular receivers away.
First-year offensive coordinator Ryan Mahaffey will routinely be challenged to come up with creative ways to get UNI’s receivers open. The return of Isaiah Weston, a 2018 MVFC all-preseason selection, should make things easier. Also working in Mahaffey’s favor is dynamic slot-receiver Deion McShane having a year of experience under his belt.
5. Who is the right quarterback?
While the previous four questions need to be answered before the season-opener, they’ll be less important if Farley, Mahaffey and first-year quarterbacks coach Justin Roper do not identify the best fit at QB.
Returnees Jacob Keller and Will McElvain, along with freshmen Nate Martens and Justin Fomby, offer unique skill-sets. Mahaffey has a tough task of identifying which of the four fits best within his scheme and the players who will be around him. If the Week 1 starter proves ineffective at some point early in the season, UNI may end up playing quarterback roulette well into the year — especially when considering redshirt rules that allow for a freshman to play in four games without losing a season of eligibility.