CEDAR FALLS — Mark Farley has been blunt in his evaluation of Northern Iowa’s offensive line play last season.
Overall, the Panther rushing attack averaged 163.4 yards per game and 3.9 yards per attempt, but the quarterbacks accounted for 37 percent of that production. UNI allowed 33 quarterback sacks and 71 tackles for loss. None of the players who return this season earned any all-conference recognition. The Panthers lost five games by a touchdown or less and slipped to a 5-6 record.
“We have to get better at offensive line,” Farley stated during the Panthers’ preseason media day.
To that end, Farley has hired no-nonsense veteran coach Mike Simmonds to lead that group.
“Coach Simmonds is a very strong individual,” said Farley. “What I like about him is I think the number one position where you have to have a strong coach is offensive line. Every great offensive line coach I’ve been around has a strong demeanor about them. His players will be tough and they will respond in practice.
“Your offensive line is always your culture. It’s not your quarterback.”
Farley is also drawing on the past to develop a standard of excellence for the current Panther linemen.
“Pick a team at Northern Iowa that was great and you could name two or three offensive linemen on it,” Farley noted of a program that produced NFL starting offensive linemen Brad Meester, Austin Howard, Chad Rinehart and Brandon Keith plus tight end Ryan Hannam from 1999-07.
“I just want to make sure they understand what standards are. That trail has already been blazed. All you have to do is put the time in because you have the skill set, but you have to work like those guys did to attain that level. I believe we have the people in place to play to that standard, and hopefully we can develop that.”
UNI returns three players who were starters most of last season — Cal Twait (6-6, 292), Jacob Appleman (6-4, 315) and Jackson Scott-Brown (6-5, 303). Lee Carhart (6-4, 300) started three games and played extensively, while Colton Lueck, Tyler Putney, Ezra Szczyrbak and Philip Arendt also saw action, although Putney is working with the defense early in fall camp.
Then there’s Bryce Sweeney, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound force who started all 13 games in 2015, but missed last season because of injury.
“I feel great,” said Sweeney. “It’s fun to get back out there and hit some people and be with the guys.
“Starting camp, after a year and a half of not playing, you don’t really know what you lose ... I wasn’t the same as I was before, and it’s taken me awhile to get back to that same player I was.”
How will Sweeney know when he’s all the way back?
“My gauge is when I don’t get pushed around and people like Adam Reth (UNI defensive tackle) can’t manhandle me.”
Simmonds is getting a look at his linemen in various combinations and at multiple positions during preseason camp.
“To me, we’ll find all starters the week of the Iowa State game,” he said. “What’s great is we have a lot of competition up front, so the cream will rise to the top.”
UNI must replace starting center Robert Rathje. Carhart leads that competition, but Simmonds said Appleman is also getting reps there, as is redshirt freshman Nick Ellis of Parkersburg.
Sweeney said Simmonds has been a strong presence.
“It’s been a real good transition. He’s old-school, and he likes to run the ball ... just hard-nosed football. I’m looking forward to this year.”
So far, Farley likes what he has seen up front.
“I’m excited about them because of the change I’ve seen the last six months, and then I see the development and the effort they’re putting into it,” he explained. “They’re becoming what I believe some of the guys who have gone through here were when they were really good.
“I see them in the weight room at 7:15 in the morning and I see not just that they’re attending, but I see the work ethic they have. I see the bond they’re creating. I see the size that we have.
“I see them getting moved around to multiple positions, from guard to center, to tackle and back to guard, so it’s like I was accustomed to when you learned to play the positions and then when you get closer to the season you lock into one position.”
Marcus Weymiller, who played quarterback in the wildcat formation late last season, has seen a sense of purpose from those linemen, too.
“We might not have better guys — who knows about that talent-wise — but I know their mentality is going to take them very far no matter who’s in the game or who has to step up,” said Weymiller.