UNI Panthers

UNI football 2020 position preview: D-line has high expectations

Elerson Smith is one of the best pass rushers in the FCS

Northern Iowa Panthers defensive lineman Elerson Smith (16) tackles San Diego Toreros running back Joseph Binda Jr. (21)
Northern Iowa Panthers defensive lineman Elerson Smith (16) tackles San Diego Toreros running back Joseph Binda Jr. (21) in the first quarter at the first-round playoff game between ther Northern Iowa Panthers and the University of San Diego Toreros at the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Editor’s note: Third in a series looking at the Northern Iowa football team before the start of the 2020 season.

By Cole Bair, correspondent

CEDAR FALLS — After looking at the talent Northern Iowa returns in its defensive backfield and at linebacker, it’s easy to see the makings of another top-10 FCS defense.

Add to that what returns along the defensive line and championship predictions don’t seem out of line.

Defensive end Seth Thomas, the only starter who doesn’t return in 2020, put up respectable numbers in 2019 and made a number of clutch plays. But he also played opposite of third-team FCS All-American Elerson Smith.

As a fourth-year junior in 2019, Smith racked up a Missouri Valley Football Conference-high 14 sacks, third most in FCS. Years of tutelage from defensive line coach Bryce Paup has created and polished Smith’s physical and mental skills. The Minneapolis native also has developed his 6-foot-7, 245-pound frame.

All that has combined to create another elite pass rusher for the Panthers, one who is regarded among the best in the FCS.

Smith’s 2019 put him on a similar arc to former All-American Karter Schult and his measurables make him a likely 2021 NFL draft prospect.

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Jared Brinkman has battled through injuries and developed into the highly impactful interior lineman for the Panthers, the kind of player Coach Mark Farley projected him to be when he recruited him after a stellar prep career at Iowa City Regina.

Brinkman’s 5-11, 290-pound frame hasn’t held him back. He regularly took on double teams in 2019 and still put up an eye-popping seven sacks — seventh best in the MVFC — earning him second team all-conference honors.

Tim Butcher, who took most of the snaps in the interior next to Brinkman in 2019, returns after racking up 10 tackles for loss last season.

Brawntae Wells and Khristian Boyd were first off Paup’s bench a season ago at end and tackle, respectively.

Wells, a senior in the fall, will be first in line with the chance to take Thomas’ old starting spot. The former West Des Moines Dowling standout’s six sacks ranked third on the team last season. He also flashed his athleticism with a pick-6 in a first round playoff win over San Diego.

Boyd didn’t get near as many snaps as Wells in reserve action, but still put together a 25-tackle season with 2 1/2 for loss and a half a sack. His playing time increased as the season went on and Boyd was seeing more snaps in the postseason than at any other point in 2019.

Devin Rice and Caden Houghtelling each got limited playing time at end last season and will be redshirt sophomores in 2020. Both were highly regarded in their recruiting class and should have an opportunity to earn more snaps, especially given Paup’s in-game substitution patterns.

The question marks begin after those previously mentioned seven linemen. Which is likely the reason why UNI’s 18-player 2020 recruiting class included five defensive linemen.

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Farley said after signing the 2020 class that it was largely a developmental group that would redshirt, but a few ill-timed injuries could force one of the five newcomers into the mix.

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