CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s offensive line will need to take a step forward in 2020 if the Panthers want to advance past the FCS playoff semifinals.
In particular, the unit needs to improve in the run game.
UNI’s struggles on the ground in 2019 were somewhat overcome by its explosive passing game. However, its 110.9 yards per game on the ground ranked eighth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and was 69 yards behind Indiana State, which ranked seventh.
The Panthers had six games last season where they didn’t reach 100 rushing yards. Their 1,663 rushing yards required 530 attempts, equaling out to a lackluster 3.1 yards per carry average. Of its 201 first downs in 2019, 33 more were gained through the air than on the ground.
Ultimately, UNI’s struggles with its ground game were punctuated in its playoff semifinal loss to James Madison, when it netted 0 yards on 19 attempts.
Along with its struggles in the running game, the unit allowed 33 sacks of quarterback Will McElvain. Some of those sacks are on McElvain for holding on to the ball too long and attempting to extend plays by scrambling, but the number put UNI ninth in the MVFC in sacks allowed and it undoubtedly had an impact on what it could do at times in its running game.
Head coach Mark Farley was not afraid to address the run game issues throughout and after the season. A lack of health with its running backs impacted what UNI was able to realistically do on the ground, but the veteran coach said the position would be a priority this offseason.
He’s restocked it with highly regarded freshman Jaylin Richardson and Kansas transfer Dom Williams.
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Also working in the favor of UNI’s offensive line is the return of four of its five starters, along with a promising group of underclassmen who have been recruited and developed by third-year offensive line coach Ryan Clanton.
Clanton will be tasked with replacing three-and-a-half year starter Jackson Scott-Brown, who leaves big shoes to fill at left guard.
Third-year sophomores Erik Sorenson and Justin Peine each got snaps last season as the first two linemen off Clanton’s bench. Sorenson got the most experience of the two, appearing in 11 games and making a handful of starts while right guard Nick Ellis and center Mason Neisen battled injuries.
The duo is set to compete for the open spot left by Scott-Brown’s graduation and they’re likely be joined in that competition by redshirt freshmen Tristan Roper and Jared Penning. Roper may have an inside track at grabbing a starting spot. He was on last season’s travel roster even though he ultimately did not appear in any games.
Another contender to grab the vacant starting spot is senior Matthew Vanderslice. The 6-foot-8, 282-pounder has battled injuries throughout his career, including last season when he missed six games, but has been a solid contributor when on the field and possesses tremendous size.
UNI’s four returning starters will be challenged by their younger, less experienced teammates, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where left tackle Trevor Penning, Neisen or right tackle Spencer Brown lose a position battle this fall.
Despite some ugly stats, UNI’s offensive line was an important part of a 10-5 playoff semifinal qualifier. Looking though at the level of improvement likely needed to reach a championship — especially considering the cancellation of spring football because of the COVID-19 pandemic — multiple positions could be up for grabs and what happens in fall camp could become the difference between another playoff run or a trip to the championship for the first time in 15 years.