CEDAR FALLS — With fall camp underway and media day on Wednesday, here are the five biggest questions Northern Iowa’s football team needs answers before its Sept. 1 kickoff at Montana.
1. What will become the defense's calling card?
More often than not, head coach Mark Farley and defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson’s defenses have been some of the FCS’ best at taking the ball away and putting pressure on quarterbacks. Since 2013, the Panthers have averaged 35.4 sacks, 16.6 interceptions and 12.8 forced fumbles per season.
While Rickey Neal racked up 9.5 sacks last season, it was playmaking from the defense’s back seven that more regularly dominated. Two seasons ago, it was Karter Schult and his 17 sacks that opposing offenses game-planned around. What level of UNI’s defense will its opponents come to fear most in 2018?
2. Will there be enough depth?
Nine starters return on offense and five return on defense, along with a handful of others who were rotational players. However, despite the promise of those returnees the Panthers can’t afford a repeat of their first five weeks of 2017. Marcus Weymiller’s injury kept him out the first five weeks of last season and left the offense one-dimensional. When that paired with a struggling defense over that same span, it equaled a 2-3 start.
Farley’s classic line every preseason is finding “a pair and a spare.” Translation: two starting caliber players and a proven backup. If the Panthers want to avoid another slow start this season they’ll need to have their “pair and a spare” set at each position.
3. Can the defense be good enough, early enough?
Having 14 or 15 players viewed as “starting caliber” by the coaching staff is never a bad thing. However, Farley and Johnson’s defense is known for its steep learning curve and the required ability to communicate seamlessly pre-snap.
Intellect and wit are every bit as valuable as size and speed in UNI’s defense and a lack of the required pre-snap communication became evident in the early going last season. That lack of communication and instincts allowed an uncharacteristic amount of big plays from opponents throughout the first five weeks of 2017.
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Can Farley, Johnson, and the rest of the defensive staff find the best 11 more quickly this season? A first-round playoff bye could depend on it.
4. Can UNI get over the North Dakota State hump?
Second-year offensive coordinator John Bond acknowledged last month in an interview with The Gazette that the Missouri Valley Football Conference goes through North Dakota State. He also said he knows the 2018 version of the Panthers have the talent to compete with any team in the FCS.
Bond and starting quarterback Eli Dunne expect the offense to take another step forward in Year 2 of the veteran play-caller’s scheme. Will that step forward be a big enough one for Dunne — who’s winless in two tries against the Bison — and the rest of the UNI offense to defeat NDSU for the first time since 2014?
5. Will another tough schedule prevent the coveted first-round bye?
Speaking of that first-round playoff bye, the Panthers haven’t had one since 2011, before the playoff field expanded to 24 teams.
Getting a week off after enduring the gauntlet that is an MVFC schedule cannot be overstated. Farley has acknowledged in recent seasons the strength of the conference and how that’s bared itself out from the selection committee in recent brackets will guide how strongly, or weakly, actually, they’ll schedule once current non-conference contracts run out.
That said, the 2018 schedule is what it is. A tough one. Even if the Panthers can get answers to the previous four questions, will it still be enough to overcome what’s likely to be a top-five, maybe top-two, schedule at season’s end? We’ll begin to find out Sept. 1 under the lights in Missoula, Mont.