Courier Sports Writer
CEDAR FALLS -- The loss of four starters, including two NFL draft picks, has placed a heavy burden on the Northern Iowa offensive line entering this season.
The front five accounts for one of the team's biggest question marks heading into the Aug. 30 opener at BYU.
"Am I worried? Yeah, I'm worried," head coach Mark Farley said, concerning an unproven line.
The coach, however, isn't about to lower his expectations.
"You've got to remember what I'm evaluating them against," Farley added. "I'm comparing them to (NFL rookies) Chad Rinehart and Brandon Keith… That's where we need to get them to and that's where they have the ability to get to."
If anyone is capable of carrying such a heavy burden, it may be Jason Fiacco.
Projected to be a first-year starter at right guard, Fiacco is a world-class weightlifter who captured a bronze medal in the 2006 Pan American Junior Championships.
"With football, strength is a big issue," said the redshirt junior who has lifted competitively since seventh grade. "Weightlifting has helped me out a lot."
After two years as a backup, it's now Fiacco's turn to utilize his elite strength.
"He's just like a barrel," Farley said of the stout 6-2, 310 pounder. "If you look at him from any angle, it's all the same."
There's plenty of size to accompany Fiacco on this year's line. He is projected to start alongside right tackle Bob Swift (6-6, 315), center Austin Steichen (6-3, 300), left guard Jordan Limbaugh (6-3, 301) and left tackle Austin Howard (6-7, 279).
Howard moves to fill a void on the line after starting all 13 games at tight end last season.
"He is a very good athlete," Farley said. "He's great in pass protection and has developed the strength over time and has grown into that body. So yeah, I feel very good about him."
Serving mainly as a blocking tight end, the new left tackle has made minor adjustments.
"It's not too different, but it's different enough that I really have to focus on what I'm doing," Howard said.
Swift has also changed positions. The lone 13-game starter from last year's line moves from left tackle to Keith's vacated right tackle position.
"Bob Swift is a senior and he's been doing a great job of leading those guys," First-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference running back Corey Lewis said. "I've got confidence " we've all got confidence " in the offensive line."
Cautiously optimistic, Farley indicated he may "mix and match" linemen. He is well aware UNI's overall success could hinge on the revamped front five's progresses.
"The development of the offensive line is key," Farley said. "Time will tell. BYU knows that, so does every one of our opponents.
"That puts the pressure on those guys to lead. How they handle that pressure is how this team will end up."
Contact Nick Petaros at (319) 291-1428 or firstname.lastname@example.org