CEDAR FALLS — To some outsiders, the defensive line may appear to be one of the biggest question marks for the University of Northern Iowa football team entering the 2017 season.
There’s no doubt the Panthers have a big hole to fill following the departure of Karter Schult, who collected an assortment of postseason hardware, most notably the Buck Buchanan FCS Defensive Player of the Year Award, after recording 17 sacks and 26 tackles for loss 2016.
But while the production of Schult, who is currently in camp with the Cleveland Browns, won’t be easy to duplicate, those on the d-line don’t seem nervous about the task in front of them, relying on a well-known adage as they prepare for the season.
“We just preach next man in,” senior Adam Reth said. “We’ll miss him, but it’s always about the next man in being ready so when that next man comes in, he has the chance to prove himself.”
It’s likely that no one on the defensive line is more excited to be the next man in than Reth. After recording three sacks in 2015, he was suspended for the 2016 season after taking an over-the-counter recovery product that contained an ingredient banned by the NCAA.
Thus far, both coaches and players are praising the way Reth has transitioned into a leadership role. But while he’s proven to be the unit’s most vocal member, he’s not being asked to handle everything himself, as several other returning players are in position to improve this fall.
Redshirt sophomore Hezekiah Applegate looks to make further strides following a promising freshman campaign when he recorded four sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Expectations are also high for junior Bryce Douglas, who had six tackles for loss last season, and senior Preston Woods, who made 28 tackles a year ago.
The unit also hopes to get help pressuring the quarterback from the linebacker position, particularly from junior Rickey Neal, who flashed major potential a season ago.
A converted linebacker who missed two games due to injury, Neal came into his own at defensive end late in the season, finishing with eight tackles for loss. That included a dominant performance in an Oct. 15 loss to Youngstown State where he recorded a sack and three tackles for loss.
And while Neal will return to linebacker this season, defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson says his versatility will be a boon to the entire defense.
“There’s a lot of things I think we can do with Rickey,” Johnson said. “He’s a good pass rusher, he can cover. The longer that he’s been in our program, the more he understands what we’re trying to do, obviously there’s more things we can do with him to help him be successful and to make the plays we need him to make, on the boundary, the field, wherever we need him to play.”
Though UNI may not have one dominant force up front this season, coaches believe the success of players like Schult has created a proud, competitive atmosphere among everyone who lines up with the front four. They believe that will provide a huge benefit as the new group gains more experience.
“The way that this team has been built ... (the defensive linemen) kind of pass the baton around,” head coach Mark Farley said. “When you work in a group all day long for years, you kind of get used to what that room’s like so you become that room.”
For the players, it’s not about simply living up to the legacy of that room, but improving upon it.
“We want to be the best defense in the nation,” Douglas said. “That’s what our goal is and we know that starts up front with us. We have a great chance of being a great team and we’re really close. We’ve just got to keep learning and keep getting better every day.”