CEDAR FALLS — If offseason predictions of a possible trip to the 2020 FCS championship game are to be realized, Northern Iowa’s running game will need a resurgence this fall.
UNI has ranked eighth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference the past two seasons, averaging 133.6 yards per game on the ground in 2018 and only 110.9 this past season.
The Panthers’ lack of success on the ground can’t be solely attributed to the loss of former All-American David Johnson after 2014, either. UNI ran for 3,266 yards the season after Johnson’s departure for the NFL, went 9-5 and reached the FCS playoff quarterfinals — proving its ability to be formidable on the ground post-Johnson.
What’s been missing in the Panthers’ backfield is a reliable, physical, playmaking running back who can keep defenses honest and provide the “chunk plays” necessary to elevate the offense from good to great.
Coach Mark Farley and running backs coach Nick Danielson have stressed the need for multiple ball carriers to emerge for the Panthers’ ground game to be at its best, but that focus on getting multiple backs involved has perhaps played a role in UNI having no 1,000-yard rushers since 2015. There’s a fair debate to be had on having a clear cut No. 1 back that can count on establishing rhythm, versus multiple backs possibly feeling pressure to make the most of an undetermined amount of touches each game anytime they get on the field.
Farley has acknowledged the lack of consistency and playmaking ability with the run game over the past couple seasons, and made a point to identify the position as a priority headed into this offseason.
So, along with the return of Tyler Hoosman, Alphonso Soko, Nick McCabe and Sam Schnee, the Panthers are hoping to get a boost from freshman recruit Jaylin Richardson from Kansas City and Dom Williams, a Kansas transfer from McKinney, Texas.
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Richardson is a 3-star recruit who was a 2019 first team all-state honoree at F.L. Schlagle High School. He’s 6-foot and 194 pounds and Farley identified him this winter as one of only a few 2020 recruits with an opportunity to contribute immediately.
Williams played sparingly while he was at Kansas and has only one season of college eligibility remaining. He was a 4-star recruit in 2016 and rated the 17th-best running back in the country by Rivals.com. He’s 5-10 and 200 pounds and, along with Richardson, should get ample opportunities to demand touches in 2020.
Hoosman represents UNI’s returning leader after putting up 388 yards on 92 carries a season ago. The junior-to-be flashed the ability to break off those “chunk” runs that evaded UNI’s offense much of last season, but he suffered an ankle injury late in the year and ended up only playing in nine of 15 games.
Soko entered 2019 as the third wheel of a three-back rotation and struggled to consistently produce, gaining only 22 yards on 15 carries before losing his season to a torn Achilles tendon in Game 6 against North Dakota State.
McCabe, a true freshman, and Schnee, a redshirt freshman, stepped up when needed after injuries to Hoosman and Soko. Schnee averaged just under 4 yards per attempt on 33 carries last season, but doesn’t project to ever top the depth chart at the position. Meanwhile, McCabe was held below 3 yards per attempt on his 34 carries in 2019.
Continued development with its offensive line and the familiarity of second year coordinator Ryan Mahaffey’s offense stand to work in favor of UNI’s run game improving this fall, but newcomers Richardson and Williams likely will need to step up and provide the Panthers with the consistency and explosiveness they will need to advance past the quarterfinals.