CEDAR FALLS — Much of the conversation surrounding Northern Iowa football entering its spring season has been about the players it lost from the COVID-19 postponement of the fall season.
Despite those losses, the Panthers were picked second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll released this week, and that optimism from the conference’s prognosticators is in part because of what UNI has returning.
In particular, at linebacker, UNI returns experienced starters Bryce Flater and Spencer Cuvelier.
“Those guys now, since they’ve been through it, they’ve got great leadership and they can help in that aspect,” UNI linebackers coach D.J. Vokolek said. “You’ve got to make sure everybody is ready to play and for me, I know with those two guys I’ve got two guys that can also help and bring those (younger) guys along.”
Cuvelier played in 11 of UNI’s 15 games in 2019 and still finished third on the team with 88 tackles. He also took command of an intricate defense as its middle linebacker despite spending his first two years at Iowa Central Community College.
After starring at running back for Grundy Center High School, Flater shifted to linebacker at UNI and has become yet another impressive developmental story since arriving in Cedar Falls in 2017.
He’s also one of six Panthers named to the MVFC all-preseason team after racking up a league-best 143 tackles in 2019.
“I think just expanding his role and being able to do more things with (Flater) defensively than maybe we have in the past is a challenge that he’s up to now with some experience,” Vokolek said. “I’m looking forward to it as the season progresses.”
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Just like head coach Mark Farley, Vokolek acknowledged the importance of building depth behind his experienced returners given the unknowns of playing while the pandemic continues.
Among those he’s counting on should a positive COVID-19 test or contact tracing force him down the depth chart is a number of redshirt freshmen and sophomores. Jordan Gayer, Jace Andregg and Ben Belken make up part of UNI’s less-experienced depth at the position, while senior Alfonzo Lambert and junior Riley Van Whye sit behind Flater and Cuvelier as capable backups.
“Riley Van Whye is intelligent. He has the ability to play both inside linebacker positions,” Vokolek said. “He’s going to be a big factor this year, along with Alfonzo Lambert who we’ve moved inside. They’ve got as much knowledge as the first two guys, so I think there’s depth there.”
With its ike and Will linebacker spots likely set in stone, competition continues at nickel linebacker — a pivotal spot of UNI’s defense that requires the toughness of a linebacker and the athleticism of a defensive back.
“Eric Mooney has done a great job there. Korby Sander has done a great job there. Austin Evans has played the position, he can play there also,” Vokolek said. “We’re just fortunate that we got some guys that we feel comfortable with at that position right now.”
Third-ranked UNI opens its spring season Feb. 19 at home against No. 5 South Dakota State.