CEDAR FALLS — If you thought the strangeness, uncertainty and challenges of the pandemic and playing a postponed football season in the spring would change expectations for Northern Iowa, think again.
With 433 days between their last game and their opener next Friday, the Panthers and Coach Mark Farley are more than ready to suit up and step between the lines again.
“When you’re in this program there’s only one way to do things and that’s the standard we live by. Whether we’re playing in January or playing in October,” Farley said. “I can’t even feasibly think of waiting for next season or next fall.”
In fact, some are so eager to play that defensive tackle Jared Brinkman said Wednesday his excitement recently had him so worked up he had to catch his breath.
“I told the guys yesterday I was in class and I was just thinking about playing and I about had a heart attack,” Brinkman said. “I had to cool myself off a little bit. I was just getting amped up.”
Brinkman, along with sophomore defensive back Omar Brown and wide receiver Isaiah Weston were named to Athlon’s preseason All-America team announced Wednesday.
Weston, coming off a 1,053-yard season, has been practicing at all three of UNI’s wide receiver positions to increase his versatility due to COVID-19 uncertainties and to make himself more of a threat to opponents. Asked if playing in the spring will be strange, the redshirt junior said when and where doesn’t matter.
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“When I think about it, it’s not like, holy crap we’re in the winter or spring. It’s, I’m in football mode,” Weston said. “I’m ready to play.”
Picked second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll, third-ranked UNI will be tested immediately against No. 5 South Dakota State in the opener of its eight game conference-only regular-season schedule.
Week 2 features what could be the “spring” season’s first game featuring miserable weather at Youngstown State.
While temperatures are supposed to warm up soon, the main issue for Farley is finding a place outside to practice before his team plays the Penguins.
“Should I put an end-loader out there to clear the snow off? And will the frozen ground not buckle or anything when I put that much weight on it to clear the snow?” Farley said. “Otherwise we’re going to go out in ankle-deep snow. I will not go to Youngstown unless we (practice) outside.”
Center Mason Neisen is questionable for SDSU. His potential absence — along with Nick Ellis who was previously ruled out for the season — would put four new starters in front of preseason all-conference quarterback Will McElvain.
“Trevor Penning, (Justin) Peine and (Erik) Sorenson. Those are all key players for us right now,” Farley said. “Jared Penning has come a long ways. (Antoine) Frazier has done really well for us — the transfer out of Kansas.”
Beyond the offensive line inexperience, Farley acknowledged tight end as another position with question marks.
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Elsewhere, though, experience returns for UNI at running back, defensive line, linebacker and in the defensive backfield where a logjam of talent still is being sorted out on who will start and where.
So, with only nine days before they finally play again, Farley and Brinkman said the competition between offense and defense throughout camp has been even.
“I think (the offense) is looking really good. Will (has) been looking really good,” Brinkman said. “He’s getting his technique down and he’s looking really solid.”
Finally, when the time came for Farley to wrap up his media day thoughts, he again pointed out his excitement for the FCS being the only football played this spring.
“I hope that we can continually get (more) fans, because that Saturday afternoon of cabin fever and staying at home would be a great opportunity to come in here for a football game,” Farley said.