CEDAR FALLS — Mark Farley’s best defenses in his 17 years as Northern Iowa head coach have been at or near the top of the FCS in takeaways.
Over the past two seasons defensive, back Xavior Williams leads UNI with eight interceptions. Williams was a freshman All-American (Hero Sports and Phil Steele) in 2017 after intercepting four passes and breaking up eight, and he followed up his breakout redshirt freshman season with another four interceptions last season while routinely being asked to cover the opponent’s best wide receiver.
This spring the junior from Burlington approached Farley with a request to move to safety. It’s a move that he thinks could lead him to more takeaway opportunities.
“I hope so,” Williams said when asked after UNI’s final spring scrimmage hether or not he’ll stick at safety. “I like playing (safety). I feel like I can get to the ball a lot more and play centerfield and go after some balls and get more picks, and that’s what I want to do.”
Farley was amenable to Williams’ proposed position switch, and explained this spring how even if he doesn’t stick at the position, he’ll be better off for having spent time practicing it.
“We put (Xavior) at safety to grow as a player,” Farley said. “You grow exponentially when you figure out what the (cornerback’s) doing and now you understand how to play your own position better because you know what it feels like to try to work with a (cornerback). He’ll be a better (cornerback) for playing safety. Now we have the ability to move him. A guy gets hurt, (we can) play our best four. He can be the moving part to make it all come together.”
Korby Sander, Christian Jegen and A.J. Allen provided the Panthers their production from the safety position last season in what eventually became a 3-3-5 alignment. That alignment change, should it continue to be UNI’s base defense this season, only helps Williams’ chances of sticking at the position as Allen has since graduated.
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“We’re trying to find ways to get our best guys on the grass,” defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson said this spring. “We just wanted to make sure we could play him (at safety) if that’s what we needed to do. He’s got the ability to go get (the football) and has as good of hands as anybody on our team.”
Wherever Williams lines up in UNI’s defensive backfield this fall, his continued improvement and production will be critical. The Missouri Valley Football Conference regularly features some of the FCS’ best quarterbacks and wide receivers, so a healthy season from Williams — who missed the last two games of 2018 — could make a considerable difference in the amount of success the Panthers have in 2019.