CEDAR FALLS — Once Eli Dunne was named Northern Iowa’s starting quarterback 2 1/2 seasons ago, the need for more size and better pass protection from the offensive line became obvious.
UNI’s offensive line talent pool at the time of Dunne’s insertion as starter wasn’t lacking, but the need for technical improvements was obvious with a pocket quarterback under center.
Last season, veterans Cal Twait and Jackson Scott-Brown heaped praise onto the now-departed Mike Simmonds for improving their techniques. Spencer Brown, a former tight end at Lenox, an 8-Player program, echoed that sentiment this week as he’s become established as the Panthers starting right tackle as a redshirt sophomore.
“(Coach Simmonds) really helped me transition my technique,” Brown said. “Playing offensive line, what it takes, and the knowledge of the game.”
Brown’s transition from 8-Player football to FCS starter is impressive in its own right. Add to it that the talented prep moved from tight end to offensive tackle, put on nearly 80 pounds, and began getting starts as a redshirt freshman.
Should Brown stay on his current trajectory, he’ll likely go down in an illustrious group of player development stories that define UNI football.
“Playing with Cal (Twait) and Jackson (Scott-Brown) we talk every single day watching film together,” Brown said. “The mindset and the knowledge of the 11-man game came, I would say, a little slower than I was expecting (it) to. There’s definitely a lot more to look at than 8-man football. My body change was a big part of this, going from a 225-pound tight end to a 300-pound offensive tackle is a little bit of a difference. You’ve got to have enough brawn and brains to go with the game and I’m still gaining on both of them.”
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While Brown acknowledges he misses catching passes as a tight end he says he’s come to love playing offensive line. His newest offensive line coach, Ryan Clanton, has received high praise from Coach Mark Farley, Cal Twait, Jackson Scott-Brown and others. Clanton, who’s experiencing his first Division-I job, also received praise from Brown for taking him and his offensive line teammates to another level this season with new-aged drills and techniques. Clanton told The Gazette that as a young coach with a playing background at Oregon he’s had the benefit of some of the best and brightest minds in the business to draw from.
Other than Clanton’s techniques, Brown, along with the rest of his offensive line cohorts, have bought into Clanton’s “dog-like mentality” mindset. Clanton says he feels blessed to coach such a talented group and explained what makes Brown such a special talent.
“I think (Spencer’s) played extremely well,” Clanton said. “I think that he’s very talented. I think that the way he plays, he has that mean streak in him, he’s nasty. In pass (protection) he’s smooth, he’s quick, he hasn’t really had trouble with anybody this season. He’s definitely kind of an amateur comedian when it comes to kind of keeping it light with the guys. Everyone likes him.”
With the Panthers coming off two consecutive wins and holding down second place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the offensive line has played a considerable role in that success. Dunne has been sacked just once in the past two games and Clanton says he’s constantly telling his linemen to be the reason for a win.
“We’re obviously on a high note right now, but at the same time (the guys) are tough as nails and they just come to work every day,” Clanton said. “Every game is really on the offensive line. So, for us, we carry that mentality every week.”