CEDAR FALLS — Mark Farley got out ahead of a lot of questions at Northern Iowa’s annual media day on Wednesday.
Entering his 18th year as the Panthers head coach, he may have set a personal record for his longest media day opening statement.
He talked about his offense and special teams, going position by position. Then he spoke in the same fashion about a defense that returns only five starters. But before he did all that, he complimented his entire team that’s only a handful of practices into its fall camp.
“It’s exciting to see where we’re at right now with the whole group, because we do look physically better than we did last year at this time,” Farley said.
As he moved through who and what’s going on with each phase of the team, a few things became obvious.
Farley sees the type of improvement in starting quarterback Eli Dunne that makes teammates rally around a player and have the confidence that a late-game situation will go their way. Farley called it one of the last things good quarterbacks build within their game to become great.
“Experience brings confidence,” Farley said. “And (Eli) got the experience last year. We’re starting to see what makes great quarterbacks different. I’m starting to see that in Eli. If he can show that (on) game days, I think you’ll see a different person underneath center (in) the way that he operates.”
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While Farley spoke highly of his signal-caller, he said running back Marcus Weymiller is the leader of the team. The former walk-on earned immense respect from his head coach by gutting through an ankle injury and racking up 809 yards in only 10 games last season. Weymiller’s return became the boost the Panthers had to have a season ago. The Panthers won five of their last six games before reaching the FCS Playoffs second round.
“The guy is doing everything he can to make himself the best he can as a student, and he’s by far doing everything he can to make himself the best football player, too,” Farley said. “Marcus kind of carries the load of what UNI is in my opinion. It isn’t because he’s a talented guy, he’s earned everything and when you earn stuff people respect you.”
Elsewhere on the offense, Farley said the tight end duo of Elias Nissen and Briley Moore could be the best he’s had as head coach. Jaylin James has stepped up and done Daurice Fountain-level offseason work, positioning himself to become the next No. 1 receiver for Dunne. He also likes the mixture of experience and size that’s available on the offensive line.
Where the uncertainty begins for Farley and his staff is on defense.
“We’re a work in progress and only because of experience,” Farley said. “I just got to make sure they know what the heck they’re doing. So, we’ve got to get this lined up and get the right people in the position that they can be effective with their talent. We have the talent, it’s getting it to where they can play to their strengths.”
Without saying it explicitly, the proverbial cat was out of the bag. As good as the offense could be the Panthers won’t reach their high expectations if they don’t find their best 11 defenders and figure out how to best use them.
So, despite the question marks and the challenges his team faces, including what’s likely to become the FCS’ toughest schedule by season’s end, Farley hasn’t stopped embracing the expectations.
“Being a part of Northern Iowa you embrace the expectation, but you embrace the role of wearing that logo,” Farley said.