Editor’s note: Second in a series look at the Northern Iowa football team before the start of the 2020 season.
By Cole Bair, correspondent
CEDAR FALLS — As established in the first position analysis of this series, Northern Iowa’s defense — despite its offense showing plenty of flashes and promise in 2019 — led the way in what became a 10-5 2019 season.
With eight starters set to return the Panthers have both starters at linebacker and their most experienced backup all returning in 2020.
Junior Bryce Flater — who finished third in Division I FCS in total tackles with 143 — has established himself as one of the FCS’ best run-and-hit linebackers while receiving praise from UNI coach Mark Farley last season for vast improvements in pass coverage. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound frame he played with last season as a third-year sophomore proved durable and able to meet the challenges from opposing offenses.
The former Grundy Center standout running back has quickly become yet another highly talented in-state prep to make an impactful transition to linebacker under the tutelage of Farley.
Chris Kolarevic was unable to finish last season after a lower body injury he suffered in the Panthers’ first-round playoff win over San Diego. When healthy, Kolarevic brings more than the necessary amount of instincts, awareness and speed to the Panthers’ other inside linebacker spot.
The redshirt junior burst onto the scene in 2018, totaling 65 tackles and four pass breakups in six games before losing his season to a lower-body injury. Kolarevic didn’t make his 2019 debut until week 5 against Weber State as a result of his 2019 injury, but still managed to finish the season with 79 total tackles while only being 100-percent healthy for a limited time.
Behind Flater and Kolarevic is one of the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s most capable backup linebackers.
Spencer Cuvelier — who made his UNI debut last season after transferring from Iowa Central Community College — proved himself capable of picking up Farley and defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson’s intricate schemes despite beginning his college career elsewhere.
Cuvelier made only five starts last season, but still found a way to amass 88 tackles, good for third on the team. The Cresco native is the type of depth most FCS teams long for. It wouldn’t be shocking if he forced his way onto the field by way of more three linebacker sets this season or a formational sub-package.
The trio of Flater, Kolarevic and Cuveilier all have two years of eligibility remaining. Keeping that in mind, it would be an impressive feat for an underclassman or new arrival to unseat any of the three’s firm grip on the depth chart’s top three spots.
Despite the unlikelihood of any new names making a profound impact at linebacker this season, the position is always important when it comes to special teams and has recently experienced high levels of attrition.
Trevon Alexander and Brock Hadachek will enter fall camp just behind the aforementioned top three.
Alexander, though, made one start — in week 1 against Iowa State — at nickelback and should be a solid insurance policy for Austin Evans on the perimeter.
Hadachek spent time on offense at tight end last season after injuries ravaged the position.
Redshirt freshman Cam Baker — who was highly regarded in UNI’s 2019 recruiting class — will be one to watch when it comes to solidifying another reliable backup inside.
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When looking at UNI’s most popular 4-2-5 and 3-2-6 defensive formations from last season, defensive ends Elerson G. Smith and Brawntae Wells moonlighted as linebackers in certain situations. Smith led the Panthers with 14 sacks last season, but also broke up four passes and proved himself capable of holding his own in coverage when called upon. Meanwhile, Wells had a memorable pick-6 for the opening score against San Diego.