CEDAR FALLS — Back in high school Aaron Graham could roll out of bed, show up and dominate.
And as a prep for Oak Grove High School, a Kansas City suburban high school, Graham dominated the competition. As a senior in 2014, he rushed for 2,934 yards, then the ninth best single-season performance in Missouri history.
When the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Graham finished his career he had 8,991 all-purpose yards, then the fifth best mark all-time in Missouri history, and he scored 96 touchdowns.
In a sentence, Graham had mad skills.
Graham still has great skills on the gridiron. And in three seasons at Northern Iowa, he’s flashed them for the Panthers. The problem, however, is he hasn’t been able to stay on the field.
Hamstrings and a hyper-extended knee that simultaneously saw him fracture his tibia has seen Graham appear in only 14 games in three seasons.
Part of the problem, Graham admits, is he tried to do what he did in high school in college.
“When I was younger, I just kind of rolled out of bed, came to practice five minutes before and ... that doesn’t work out (in college),” Graham said. “It’s my fault that I did not prepare myself right.”
With a newer mature approach, Graham now arrives up to 90 minutes before practice to stretch and get ready for practice.
A receiver for his first three years in Cedar Falls, a position he switched to when UNI, with depth at running back, wanted to try to get him on the field early asked him to do. And, Graham showed flashes of being an impactful player at the position catching 13 passes for 197 yards and three scores as a sophomore.
However, injuries prevented Graham from truly being an impact player, which is exactly what the Panthers want out of him in 2019, and he’s making a positional switch, again.
Right after spring break and before the start of spring practice, UNI head coach Mark Farley asked Graham to switch back to running back where the senior adds depth to a position that graduated Marcus Weymiller, the team’s leading rusher the past two seasons.
“Now by moving him back to running back we all have found out and seen in practices he is very instinctive at running back and it is where he belongs,” Farley said. “But ... now we can put him out in the slot, out at receiver and it gives us multiple formations when he is in the game because he has learned our offense as a receiver.”
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Graham says the move has been good.
“It’s not a crazy move,” Graham said. “I feel really confident back there. Feel really good, feel like I know what I’m doing all the time.”
Graham says the hardest transition back to running backs is pass protection where he has had to reacquaint himself to taking on defensive ends, defensive tackles and linebackers and protecting his quarterback.
And, he says, running back coach Nick Danielson also has an occasional bone to pick with him.
“Danielson has told me I try to be more of a speed back than what I should be,” Graham smiled. “Says I’m always trying to stretch things up and I need to cut it up field more ... see a hole and just take it.”
Senior Trevor Allen, whom Graham is almost of a similar mold, figures to be the starter. He’s missed the entire spring after off-season surgery, but has rushed for 1,023 yards on 226 carries the past two seasons, while he has 79 career receptions for 800 yards.
Graham is battling with three underclassmen to compliment Allen in 2019.
There is sophomore Alphonso Soko of Muscatine, who carried the ball 15 times for 47 yards in 2018.
Another sophomore, Tyler Hoosman, has ties to the Cedar Valley.
The Plainfield, Ill. native’s grandfather is Emmit Hoosman, the Waterloo East Hall of Famer and member of its Ring of Honor, and father, Emmit Jr., who was the leading rusher for Waterloo West in 1982.
When Weymiller and Allen were slowed last year, Hoosman showed he was more than capable as he rushed 44 times for 205 yards.
Then there is red-shirt freshman Sam Schnee, who rushed for 1,410 yards for Dubuque Senior as a senior.