CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s defense led the way toward a FCS Playoffs semifinal appearance against eventual runner-up James Madison last season.
In its 17-0 semifinal loss to the Dukes, UNI’s secondary limited JMU’s high-powered offense to 157 passing yards while intercepting one of quarterback Ben DiNucci’s passes.
The Panthers’ secondary tied for the Missouri Valley Football Conference lead with 19 interceptions in 2019 and led the conference with three touchdowns.
Safety Xavior Williams, cornerback Omar Brown and nickelback Austin Evans represent a trio of returnees that measure up with anyone in the MVFC and across the FCS.
Williams is poised to put high-level finishing touches in 2020 on what’s become an accomplished career. The former West Burlington/Notre Dame prep received freshman All-America honors from HERO Sports and Phil Steele in 2017 and followed it up with MVFC first-team honors in 2018. Last season, after a position switch to safety, Williams led the Panthers with 13 pass breakups and had one interception, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown as he earned All-MVFC second-team honors.
Brown, a true freshman who broke out in fall camp and went on to start all 15 games, finished second in the MVFC with six interceptions while being regularly tested by opponents. His outstanding freshman season earned him AP All-America third-team honors. Brown’s spot atop the cornerback depth chart is undoubtedly written in Sharpie.
UNI does have two highly-effective starters to replace headed into 2020: cornerback Roosevelt Lawrence and safety Christian Jegen.
Jegen started all 15 games and was second on the team with 108 tackles and four interceptions.
Lawrence started 14 games and grabbed two interceptions to go along with three pass breakups, one sack and 62 tackles.
Most FCS teams would have their work cut out to replace those two departures, but UNI’s secondary is one of its deepest position groups.
When it comes to replacements, there’s no question Korby Sander’s return from a season-ending knee injury he suffered last spring is likely to be as impactful as Briley Moore’s return at tight end.
Sander racked up 93 tackles in 2018 and intercepted three passes while playing safety and nickelback. It’s likely the versatile redshirt junior will replace the departed Jegen and be more than capable of filling those shoes.
How defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson and head coach Mark Farley replace Lawrence at cornerback, though, is hard to gauge at this point.
Williams, who performed well at safety last season after playing his first two at cornerback, could slide back to the position and immediately return to being one of the FCS’ top corners.
However, senior Micah Mayberry — a juco transfer from Butler Community College last season — was solid when called upon for spot duty in 2019. Mayberry narrowly lost a fall camp battle to Lawrence at cornerback and sources indicate he has a good shot to start this season.
Beyond Mayberry, the Panthers have redshirt freshman Edwin Dearman from Nimitz, Texas, who was highly regarded in the 2019 recruiting class. Along with Dearman, former Cedar Rapids Washington prep Isaiah Nimmers will hope to put his name back in the mix after missing last season while recovering from a late-season knee injury in 2018.
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It’s also important to remember that the Panthers’ regular switches between 4-2-5 and 3-2-6 defenses last season creates room for a sixth defensive back to start occasionally or at least play an important amount of snaps.
South Alabama transfer Spencer Perry split time with Jevon Brekke as UNI’s sixth defensive back last season when playing its 3-2-6 scheme. There’s no indication the two won’t again compete for time at what’s called the “star safety,” but where Williams ends up is likely to have a large ripple effect on how the rest of the defensive backfield shakes out.