CEDAR FALLS — The spring ended on a disappointing note for University of Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley.
Although Farley was pleased with the progress the Panthers made over 15 practices, he was disappointed that the fans, friends and recruits who watched a two-hour workout Saturday didn’t get to see much of that growth.
In the first 30 minutes of individual drills, two more Panthers went down with injuries and rather than risk further setbacks, Farley took tackling off the table during three live, 11-on-11 scrimmage sessions.
The Panthers were already without more than a dozen starters/contributors because of injuries prior to the final practice of the spring.
“I was very pleased with our last week, just disappointed today because we couldn’t tackle,” Farley said. “I did want to tackle today. Since last Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, they were exceptional. This was just okay today because I really couldn’t ‘T’ it up.”
The big stories Saturday came at quarterback and safety.
The Panthers must replace 2 1/2-year starter Eli Dunne at quarterback, and sophomore Jacob Keller and redshirt freshman Will McElvain have edged ahead of true freshman Nate Martens in the competition.
Keller and McElvain each got three turns running UNI’s offense, while Martens got two drives during the final April practice.
“I think there is a 1A and a 1B,” said Farley. “Nate ... he is where a freshman should be. You come to a two-a-day camp and after seven practices every freshman is going to look like that ... you are going to look confused.
“The key for him (Martens) is he will grow exponentially in those first 10 days of the fall because he has already been through this. That is where he has to take off. Where it became confusing, that is where he has to pick up and run with it.
“That is why there is a 1A and 1B, but Nate is in the thick of it as much as anything,” Farley concluded.
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Both Keller and McElvain said the group made progress.
“I feel a lot more comfortable playing with Coach Mahaffey (Ryan) and Coach Roper (Justin),” Keller said. “I think all of us have gotten a lot more comfortable with the offense. We are making less mistakes, but we are still making some that we can fix.”
McElvain got the first crack at running the No. 1 offense Saturday, but says don’t put too much into that.
“I think we are just trying to split evenly right now,” McElvain said. “Coaches want to give everybody (opportunities), put them in different situations. It has kind of been random.”
While it was not much of a surprise for anyone who has seen a UNI practice or two this spring, it may have surprised some fans Saturday to see first-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference cornerback Xavior Williams lined up at free safety.
Williams spent the entire 15 practices learning the safety position.
“I hope so,” Williams said if the safety thing may stick. “I like playing it. It is something different. It is fun. I feel like I can get to the ball a lot more, play centerfield and go after some ball and get more picks. That is what I want to do.”
Whether or not Williams stays at safety has yet to be determined, but it is something UNI did with current Philadelphia Eagle Deiondre Hall during his days in Cedar Falls.
“Deiondre Hall made the most growth as a player when we took him from corner and moved him to safety,” Farley said. “When he played safety and then moved back to corner, he started to learn the whole thing.
“He will be a better corner by playing safety.”
The Panthers will get the month of May off before most of the incoming freshmen arrive in June for strength conditioning and group workouts prior to start of preseason practice in early August.