CEDAR FALLS – Will McElvain knows what it’s like to be considered an underdog.
He’s had his share of doubters and detractors during his time as a member of the Northern Iowa football team.
At 5-foot-11, he’s not your prototypical college quarterback.
He came to UNI as a walk-on.
And despite being a two-year returning starter for the Panthers, he had to win a highly competitive battle with a pair of transfers to keep his job this season.
“At times, it was hard to stay positive,” said McElvain, a junior from Des Moines. “But I am blessed just to be in this position in the first place. I was never supposed to be the starter anyway. I am just grateful to be in this position and I just take it all in as I go.”
Through it all, McElvain has persevered. He turned in a gritty performance in Saturday’s season opener at heavily favored Iowa State.
He hit Quan Hampton for a 52-yard touchdown pass that gave UNI an early 7-0 lead and silenced the sellout crowd at Jack Trice Stadium.
And he nearly helped the FCS No. 21 Panthers pull off a huge upset over the seventh-ranked Cyclones. ISU outlasted the Panthers 16-10 in a hard-fought battle in Ames.
McElvain passed for 230 yards and one score in the season opener. He also was picked off twice against Iowa State.
“Will battled and did a lot of good things,” UNI coach Mark Farley said following the game. “But we need to win that game. We need to find a way to finish those last two drives and improve in those situations.”
McElvain won the starting quarterback job during preseason camp after UNI brought in transfers Theo Day and Matt Morrissey.
“Competition is great – it brings out the best in everybody,” McElvain said. “They brought in two very talented guys. It was more about trying to compete and get better as a group. Everybody was encouraging and nobody was selfish about it. We all wanted to see each other do well and it’s going to continue that way the rest of the season.”
McElvain came to Cedar Falls after being an all-state quarterback at Lincoln High School in Des Moines. He was the first player to record over 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in Iowa Class 4A history.
He walked on at Northern Iowa and redshirted during the 2018 season.
McElvain made a big splash for the Panthers during his freshman season in 2019. He passed for 2,778 yards and 20 touchdowns in leading UNI to a 10-5 record that included a pair of playoff victories.
McElvain and the Panthers had their share of struggles after going 3-4 when they were forced to play an abbreviated spring schedule in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He actually missed two games with COVID. McElvain passed for 938 yards in the five games he did play in during the spring.
“The spring season, it was definitely tough,” McElvain said. “It was frustrating seeing your teammates out there playing when you can’t be out there on the field. There is nothing you can do about it. We had those (COVID) problems and issues with a lot of guys on our team during the spring. That was part of the challenge that we faced. It was really difficult.”
Everything is virtually back to normal now for the Panthers as the 2021 season has kicked off. McElvain is excited to have an opportunity to throw to a strong group of Panther receivers this fall.
“We have some great weapons,” he said. “We know we have a chance to be very successful with this group of receivers. We just have to go out there and show it.”
McElvain and his teammates are eager to have another shot at making a deep run in the postseason.
“We feel like we have a great football team – we proved that against Iowa State and we felt like that was a game we could’ve won,” he said. “For us, it’s just about coming out and competing the way we are capable of playing. If we play our best football, we can play with anybody. We know we can have a great season.”
Craig Sesker is a sports reporter for the Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @Craigsesker. You can reach him via email at Craig.Sesker@WCFCourier.com or via phone at 319-575-2891.