CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football heads into the offseason after a seesaw 2018 season lined with injuries, inconsistent defense, red-zone struggles and occasional glimpses of a team talented enough to compete with the best of the FCS.
Throughout its first four games, and at times throughout the remainder of the season, UNI (7-5) displayed a defense capable of leading the way to a playoff berth and an offense with the potential to play a requisite level of complementary football.
At the center of that complementary offense was quarterback Eli Dunne. Dunne responded to a second-half benching against Montana in week one and a non-start against Iowa the following week by reclaiming his starting job in game three against Hampton and never looking back.
Dunne’s 6,513 career passing yards and 51 touchdowns place him fifth in each category all-time among UNI QBs. But for reasons both in and out of his control, the Grinnell native was unable to establish himself as a transcendent talent capable of beating Missouri Valley stalwart North Dakota State (0-3 career record) or leading the Panthers past the second round of the playoffs.
Most notably in a season that ended in the second round of the FCS Playoffs, Dunne and the UNI offense struggled to score touchdowns once they entered the red zone. UNI scored touchdowns on 25 of its 49 red-zone trips in 2018, the majority of which came in the first half of the season.
With Dunne, running back Marcus Weymiller, tight end Elias Nissen and offensive linemen Cal Twait and Tyler Putney graduating, there’s considerable work to be done in the offseason to rectify what ultimately cost UNI a trip to the quarterfinals.
Much of the offseason attention will be focused on who starts at quarterback in the 2019 opener against Iowa State, and rightfully so. Jacob Keller and Will McElvain currently represent on-roster favorites, but Nate Martens — a highly-regarded verbal commit out of St. Louis — along with the potential for a junior college or FBS transfer remain possibilities.
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Of the Panthers’ injury woes this season, they were most affected on defense. Linebacker Jake Hartford, a presumed starter, missed the entire season. Chris Kolarevic, who stepped in for Hartford, played well enough in only seven games to be named an MVFC All-Newcomer. Xavior Williams, Kendrick Suntken, Blake Thomas, Alfonzo Lambert and Isaiah Nimmers all also missed various amounts of time due to injury.
UNI’s defense gave up scores of 38, 56 and 37 while also pitching three shutouts, the most since 1971. Mark Farley and his staff will be tasked with replacing six starters on that side of the ball this offseason.
Headed into 2019, Farley and his staff can target the best available players for their defense as the depth chart features much more balance than the offense’s. Whether it already exists on the roster or is found on the transfer market, a play-making safety, starting-caliber linebacker and another dynamic pass-rusher are likely to be priorities 1A, 1B and 1C before next fall.
Farley’s contract runs through the end of 2021 and there are no indications that the program’s most accomplished head coach in school history will not get the remaining three years of his deal to manufacture a second career trip back to the FCS championship.