CEDAR FALLS -- For five days, Northern Iowa's football practice has gone at a deliberate pace.

The tempo will ramp up on day six.

With seven of the 10 coaches on staff new to the program, head coach Mark Farley used UNI's first five practices to allow the team to get know each other more than anything else.

That will change today as the Panthers continue preparations for the 2017 season opener at Jack Trice Stadium against Iowa State on Sept. 2.

Wednesday, Farley and the Panthers introduced themselves to the media inside the UNI-Dome.

"Before they changed the rule, we'd be reporting today," Farley said of new NCAA preseason guidelines that eliminate two-a-day practices but allow teams to start practice sooner. "We wouldn't have practiced. 

"But we chose to bring our guys in (early) because of our coaching staff. It gave us a chance to go slow. It wasn't about evaluation, it was about learning plays, learning the system. We will actually start camp tomorrow where the pace comes up and the level of intensity will rise."

Evaluation mode for a team that returns 22 starters -- eight offensive, nine defensive and five special teamers -- will begin in earnest as the Panthers try to bounce back from a 5-6 mark last year that saw UNI lose four games by four or fewer points.

"We weren't very consistent in our play sometimes," returning quarterback Eli Dunne said. "I think if we stay even keel, stay consistent and finish games we should be more successful."

Offensively, it starts with Dunne, a junior who threw for 418 yards and two touchdowns in a spectacular first start, a 61-7 win over Missouri State in week seven.

But Dunne was dinged up against North Dakota State the following week and missed a win at Indiana State before a pair of uneven performances in a win at Western Illinois and a season-ending loss to South Dakota State at home where a victory most likely would've pushed UNI into the FCS playoffs.

"I expect a lot more of myself this year," said Dunne, who finished the year 95 of 149 for 1,175 yards and seven touchdowns with eight interceptions. 

Dunne will have plenty of weapons at his disposal despite the loss of running backs Tyvis Smith and Michael Malloy, who combined for more than 1,000 rushing yards. J'Veyon Browning, Trevor Allen and Marcus Weymiller, who all played extensively last year, figure to get the bulk of carries.

At receiver, senior Daurice Fountain and his 82 career catches leads a young, but talented group. Sophomore Jalen Rima was a big-play threat last year as a true freshman, averaging 16.9 yards per catch, while Jaylin James hauled in 15 catches for 214 yards.

The big question mark is whether an offensive line that was banged up and missing key players most of last season can do two things -- open holes for the running backs and protect Dunne, who unlike many of UNI's last few starting quarterbacks is a more of a traditional dropback passer than a running threat.

Left tackle Cal Twait returns for his third season as a starter and Jackson Scott-Brown, Jacob Appleman and Lee Carhart all started some games last year. UNI also welcomes back Bryce Sweeney at right tackle after he missed all of 2016 with a back injury.

"Coach Simmons (Mike) has brought all the guys together and I think he has made guys a little more ready, maybe" Twait said. "I think we have a lot of capable guys who have the ability to step in, fill a role and do a great job."

Carhart, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior, has the inside track to replace four-year starter Robert Rathje at center.

Defensively, UNI lost FCS Defensive Player of the Year Karter Schult, but the Panthers are deep at defensive line and linebacker and for the most part in the secondary.

Linebacker Jared Farley is a preseason All-American, while cornerback Malcolm Washington and safety Elijah Campbell both performed at an all-conference level last year.

"We've just put our heads down (during camp) and went to work trying to be relentless getting after the ball on defense," said Jared Farley, who led the Panthers with 80 tackles last season.

In addition to losing Schult, UNI lost versatile linebacker D'Shawn Dexter and cornerback Jamison Whiting. Redshirt freshman Xavior Williams of Burlington figures to take Whiting's spot at corner, while former Waterloo West all-stater Blake Thomas is in line to replace Dexter.

"Blake Thomas is another linebacker that has shown some good things this summer," linebackers coach D.J. Vokolek said. "He has good size and I'm excited to see what he can do once we go live."

Outside linebacker Rickey Neal and defensive lineman Preston Woods are also key returners, as is defensive lineman Adam Reth, who sat out last season.

UNI has six road games this year, including trips to co-Missouri Valley Conference favorites South Dakota State (Oct. 14), and North Dakota State (Oct. 28).

"It is a challenging one," Mark Farley said of the schedule which includes home dates against Cal-Poly, national runner-up Youngstown State, Western Illinois, South Dakota and Indiana State.

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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