CEDAR FALLS — With the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s cancellation of its fall season, and subsequently three of Northern Iowa’s preseason All-Americans opting out of a spring season, here’s a position-by-position breakdown of its spring roster:
Will McElvain started all 15 games last season and performed well, breaking the school record for passing yards in a season by a freshman (2,778) and throwing 20 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. New QB coach Shawn Watson has said he’ll work with McElvain to improve his 53-percent completion rate from last season.
UNI boasts a pair of talented redshirt freshman backups in Justin Fomby and Nate Martens.
Before the NCAA Board of Governors waiver in late August to approve an additional year of eligibility for all fall sports student-athletes, UNI could have found itself looking once again for help in its backfield after this season. Now that the waiver is in place, Kansas transfer Dom Williams will have two fall seasons, and this spring, to show Panthers fans what he can bring to a backfield that needs a boost.
Junior Tyler Hoosman returns after showing potential last year before missing the playoffs with an ankle injury. Sophomores Sam Schnee and Nick McCabe have each gotten limited opportunities with some success. Freshman Jaylin Richardson has been regarded since signing day as a potential first-year contributor.
There could be some potential attrition at receiver.
Seniors Suni Lane, Nick Phillips and Nick Fossey could all choose to move on from their college careers — especially if they graduate in December. However, if they choose to stay they’ll receive another year of eligibility.
However things shake out with those seniors, UNI has an impressive wide receiver room.
Preseason All-American Isaiah Weston is poised to build off his 1,053-yard season in 2019 as long as he can avoid the injury bug that bit him intermittently last year. Deion McShane is healthy again after missing the majority of last season and transfers Kenden Robinson and Quan Hampton appear poised to battle with redshirt sophomore Logan Wolf for snaps.
Briley Moore’s transfer to Kansas State left a hole at the position, but Western Kentucky graduate transfer Kyle Fourtenbary and junior college transfer Dante Vandenburg are important additions. Pairing those two with returnees Jayden Scott, Tristan Bohr and Alex Allen should create quality competition at the position. Bohr, a senior, is expected to return after receiving a medical redshirt due to a torn ACL last season.
Here’s where the first notable hit comes due to the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the cancellation of a fall season.
Preseason All-American Spencer Brown, a fifth-year senior right tackle, will forgo the spring season to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft where he’s been projected to go as high as 36th overall (Bleacher Report).
Trevor Penning is set to return at left tackle, as is Mason Neisen at center and Nick Ellis at right guard. Erik Sorenson has experience at guard and is a likely candidate to start. Senior Matthew Vanderslice or redshirt freshman Tristan Roper are best positioned to fill Brown’s departure.
UNI’s second hit to its depth chart again comes in the trenches.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Preseason All-American defensive end Elerson G. Smith has been talked about as a potential day two NFL Draft selection, and rightfully so after racking up 14 sacks, 21 1/2 tackles for loss and 63 tackles as a junior.
There’s no replacing Smith, but D-line coach Bryce Paup has typically had an heir apparent ready whenever an all-conference pass rusher has departed. Brawntae Wells, Caden Houghtelling and Devin Rice are aligned to get the first chances to collect Smith’s snaps.
No notable losses here because the Panthers’ three best linebackers are juniors. Leading tackler Bryce Flater is back, as is middle linebacker Chris Kolarevic, who has healed from a late-season lower body injury.
UNI’s final roster hit comes with preseason All-American cornerback/safety Xavior Williams opting out of spring to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Fortunately for the Panthers this is one of their deepest positions. Starters Omar Brown, Korby Sander, Spencer Perry and Austin Evans are set to return. Meanwhile, Micah Mayberry, Stefan Black and Edwin Dearman offer quality options to fill Williams’ departure.
Sophomore kicker Matthew Cook returns after earning all-conference recognition as a freshman. Isaac Jorgenson and Cael Loecher could compete with incumbent starter Zac Kibby at punter.