CEDAR FALLS — Hero Sports ranking Northern Iowa No. 3 in its preseason FCS rankings published this week Northern is yet another confirmation of exceptionally high expectations for the 2020 Panthers.
It’s not difficult to understand why UNI is being pegged as one of the top challengers to FCS stalwart North Dakota State. The Bison’s 37-game winning streak and the NFL hype surrounding quarterback Trey Lance makes them as daunting as ever, but the Panthers return 17 of their 22 starters, including five preseason Hero Sports All-Americans.
UNI also stands to benefit from Ryan Mahaffey entering his second season as offensive coordinator.
Mahaffey returned to Cedar Falls last season after a two-year stint as tight ends coach at Western Kentucky and helped guide the Panthers to the FCS quarterfinals and 10 wins despite a number of injuries and one of the FCS’ toughest schedules.
Mahaffey’s play-calling also helped quarterback Will McElvain break the single-season passing yards record by a freshman with 2,778.
Headed into 2020 without the benefit of spring practices and on-campus offseason workouts because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mahaffey feels some comfort given the amount of experienced starters his offense returns.
“We’re excited to have a veteran team returning,” Mahaffey said. “There are a lot of guys returning who have taken some meaningful snaps for us. Now it’s about trying to figure out how do we build on the foundation we’ve created thus far.”
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Building on the foundation Mahaffey references likely starts with improving a running game that ranked eighth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference with 110.9 yards per game. UNI’s backfield will have a pair of new weapons in Kansas grad transfer Dom Williams and highly-regarded freshman Jaylin Richardson out of Kansas City.
“That’s an area of emphasis not just this season, but every season, evaluating what it is that we’re doing in the run game. Because you’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage,” Mahaffey said. “The biggest thing that we’re trying to do is make sure we’re streamlining what we do from a schematic standpoint. To make sure that our blocking unit, they feel comfortable with their ID, their looks, where those guys can rage off the ball and knock people back vertically off the line of scrimmage.”
Another factor bringing positive vibes to UNI’s 2020 offense is newly hired veteran offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, who spent 2019 at Georgia as an offensive quality control coach.
“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. “We’re going through it right now making sure that we have consistent answers to some of the issues we were presented with last year.”
Mahaffey acknowledges that a lot of his time was spent this offseason evaluating his first season’s body of work as offensive coordinator, but throughout all that hard work he’s enjoying the game that’s shaped his life as much as ever.
“Whenever you get to (self scout) it’s a fun time of year where you’re able to sit back and evaluate yourself as a play-caller,” Mahaffey said. “We’re able to evaluate each other as an offensive staff and recognize areas where we need to improve. The great thing about the game of football is it’s always changing. Really, part of the fun is that you have to dig in and you’ve got to find ways to be creative, but at the same time be simple to allow your guys to execute.”