CEDAR FALLS — A four-way quarterback competition dominated the preseason headlines for Northern Iowa last August.
Walk-on redshirt freshman Will McElvain emerged as the competition’s winner and backed up the UNI coaching staff’s decision with one of the best seasons by a freshman QB in program history.
McElvain threw for a UNI freshman-record 2,778 yards, breaking Sawyer Kollmorgen’s record set in 2012.
The former Des Moines Lincoln Railsplitter routinely dazzled fans with his ability to scramble and extend plays, as well as his fearlessness to throw deep, which gave birth to the phrase “McElvain Magic.”
In his first start at Iowa State, McElvain displayed the “magic” he would come to be known for. UNI took the Cyclones to triple overtime in the season-opener and the first touchdown pass of his career took the sellout crowd at Jack Trice Stadium, and those watching at home and social media, by storm.
Headed into last season, ball security was a concern UNI head coach Mark Farley acknowledged publicly with McElvain, after he spent much of his 2018 redshirt season as the No. 2 quarterback in practice. The freshman answered those concerns, throwing only seven interceptions; however, he was sacked 33 times in 2019 — second-most of any Missouri Valley Football Conference QB. McElvain’s penchant to move out of the pocket and scramble cost him a few too many times as a freshman and has more than likely been a point of emphasis during his offseason workouts.
Isaiah Weston — who led UNI’s receivers with 24.5 yards per catch and 1,053 yards — collaborated with McElvain to form one of the FCS’s most dangerous offensive duos in 2019. The two combined for 10 touchdowns — half of McElvain’s season total — and should only improve their rapport in 2020.
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Farley was supportive and complimentary while offering occasional public critiques of McElvain throughout the 2019 season. Ultimately, he started all 15 of UNI’s games with a final record of a 10-5 and a quarterfinal playoff exit to eventual runner-up James Madison.
Looking back on McElvain’s body of work from 2019, he’s undoubtedly the Panthers starter headed into 2020.
Jacob Keller, who was the runner-up to McElvain in the 2019 fall camp, entered the transfer portal midway through last season and is no longer listed on the team’s roster.
Nate Martens, a 2019 recruit who enrolled early, redshirted last season and will enter fall camp in a battle with fellow redshirt freshman Justin Fomby. Both were highly regarded recruits.
The Panthers secured one quarterback in their 2020 recruiting class. Da’Vonshai Harden, a 3-star recruit from Topeka High School in Kansas, is a dual-threat QB who passed for 1,397 yards and ran for 901 as a senior. He’ll likely be a developmental prospect who redshirts.
Improvement from McElvain this season doesn’t appear to be too complicated to achieve. Especially if UNI finds more production from its running backs.
Cutting back on his number of sacks taken and hits suffered as a runner should go a long way toward higher, more consistent production. Late last season, it seemed McElvain occasionally lacked the arm strength and acceleration that helped him make dynamic plays earlier in the season. Now, with a full season of college-level experience and year’s worth of familiarity with offensive coordinator Ryan Mahaffey’s playbook, McElvain could be positioned to lead the Panthers back to the playoffs.