UNI Panthers

UNI football begins fall practice this week as it prepares for unique spring season

Panthers will practice 15 times in next 34 days

Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley watches an open practice at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, April
Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley watches an open practice at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Saturday, April 15, 2017. (The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — With the Missouri Valley Conference releasing its 2021 spring football schedule last week Northern Iowa is now set to begin “fall ball” Tuesday to rebegin training for the spring season.

The Panthers will have 15 practices in the next 34 days and coach Mark Farley said during a Zoom conference Monday that they’ll practice on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and plan to exclusively do so inside the UNI-Dome. Farley also revealed that if a requisite number of positive coronavirus tests are reached during fall practices to provoke a shutdown they can resume once those players are cleared to return and make up all practices lost while shut down.

With the FBS having almost completely returned to play this fall Farley says he’s closely watching how programs are working to mitigate COVID-19.

Living and locker room arrangements, how practices are set up and constructing a four-deep rather than the typical two-deep depth chart is just some of what he and his staff are working on.

“There’s little room for error — whether it’s COVID error or football error,” Farley said. “It’s still error and it will still factor into the results of this coming season as much as what happens in the following season.”

Playing two seasons in one calendar year is also not lost on Farley.

“Two seasons in (one year) — hard to do — but we’ve got to find the possible in the impossible and that’s what we’re after. We won’t have the 13 weeks of weight training and the three months off for surgeries and things like that,” Farley said. “We just have to get the whole roster ready to play and be able to adapt as injuries and COVID and two seasons unfold. We’re trying to prepare for that mentally as (much) as physically.”

When the MVFC decided on August 7 to postpone its season to the spring it provoked a number of reactions throughout the league. Chief among them the league’s top talents entering the transfer portal or otherwise opting out.

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UNI right tackle Spencer Brown, defensive back Xavior Williams and defensive end Elerson G. Smith have all made indications that their UNI careers are over and they’re instead preparing for the NFL Draft in late April. Farley said the trio of All-Americans will not be a part of the 15 fall practices, however he didn’t close the door entirely on their UNI careers.

“Everyone was making decisions and we didn’t have all the information,” Farley said. “I would anticipate those three will not be in these practices, although there’s conversations with all three of them still. I’m going to not count on them and if they’re available they’re a bonus because they’re great players.”

Another unique element of playing this spring is a pair of MVFC teams — North Dakota State and Missouri State — benefiting from extra practices by having scheduled non-conference games this fall.

The Bison will host Central Arkansas at the Fargodome this Saturday with a 45-percent capacity limit (roughly 8,400). Meanwhile, Missouri State (0-2) played at Oklahoma on Sept. 12 and at Central Arkansas this past Saturday. The Bears will wrap up their fall season hosting Central Arkansas on Saturday, Oct. 17.

Asked whether or not they pursued non-conference games this fall, Farley described a “university decision” led to not seeking games after the MVFC postponement.

“We were aggressively contacting people and talking to (teams), but we were doing that mostly in June, July and early August,” Farley said. “There were decisions made, ‘OK, do we keep looking for a game or do we totally shut down and wait for the spring?’ The decision was made by our university to not play at all and that’s when we quit looking for games, too.”

UNI opens its 2021 spring football season Feb. 20 at home against Illinois State.

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