CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa football opens spring practice on Monday. Fifteen practices are scheduled leading up to its spring game on Friday, April 27.
After an 8-5 season that ended in the FCS quarterfinals, the Panthers experienced key losses to a defense that intercepted 21 passes — the most since 2008 — in 2017.
Here are three things to watch on defense during UNI’s spring season:
1. Secondary shakeout
The graduations of Elijah Campbell and Malcolm Washington created a significant hole in the Panthers secondary. Sophomore Xavior Williams cemented himself as a starter opposite Washington last season and showed plenty of promise grabbing four interceptions. Seniors A.J. Allen and Nikholi Jaghai — who saw action in 2017 — sit atop what’s likely to be a fluid safety depth chart headed into spring practice.
Suni Lane and Korby Sander collected four starts apiece in 2017 as true freshmen and figure to be in the picture once again. The duo is an intriguing part of what is a 15-man defensive backs room that, according to defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson, will come together under a simple philosophy.
“If a (defensive) lineman screws up or gets out of a gap or misses a tackle, there’s a linebacker that’s probably going to make him right,” Johnson said. “If the linebacker screws up, there’s a pretty good chance we’ve got somebody to knock the (ball-carrier) down for at least 12. If one of those two (defensive backs) screw up, we’ve got to listen to them play the fight song.”
2. A new quarterback for the defense
Most notable among all defensive departures is Jared Farley. Now a graduate assistant at Iowa State, Farley was the unquestioned know-it-all quarterback of UNI’s defense the past 3 1/2 seasons at middle linebacker.
Set to replace Farley is Duncan Ferch, a fifth-year senior with two years starting experience alongside Farley. Ferch believes that up-close experience uniquely qualifies him to be this season’s defensive signal-caller. He’s likely to be paired with Jake Hartford, a sophomore that flashed in limited action last season.
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Much like its secondary, the Panthers return limited experience at linebacker, something that Johnson pointed out.
“We’re going to have new bodies. And we kind of think we know, but we don’t really now,” Johnson said. “I know Duncan (Ferch), I know Jake (Hartford). We’ve got Kendrick Suntken. Blake Thomas. We’ve got bodies, and it’s going to be kind of interesting how that separates itself out. It’s not that we’re young, we’re inexperienced.”
3. It starts up front
Adam Reth and Preston Woods’ graduations are a similar-sized hole to the one in the secondary. Reth was an underappreciated three-down lineman who was versatile enough to play inside and on the edge, while Woods routinely occupied multiple offensive linemen, allowing Farley and Ferch to make plays behind him. Brawntae Wells, Seth Thomas, Hezekiah Applegate, and Iowa Central transfer Tim Butcher are names to keep an eye on throughout the spring.
Rickey Neal, who registered 9.5 sacks in 2017, leads UNI’s defensive line. Christian Perez, who redshirted as a fourth-year senior in 2017, along with sophomore Jared Brinkman — who was talented enough to get his redshirt pulled a season ago — form what’s likely to be the most interesting pair to watch in spring along the defensive line.