CEDAR FALLS – Footballs will be thrown and pads will pop for the first time this week for the Northern Iowa football team.
After the season was shut down in August by COVID-19, the Panthers will hold their first official fall practice, the first of 15 they can hold over 34 days, Tuesday inside the UNI-Dome.
UNI head coach Mark Farley says it will be an important 15 days, especially for his young players, but also for the entire 104-man roster.
“We didn’t have spring ball,” Farley said. “That development is critical for any freshmen on our football team. We need to make sure we are developing our freshmen and sophomores, because when you look at what is happening, I’ve been watching what is happening in the FBS. One team lost six guys and two coaches and another lost eight guys and a coach. So, I’m trying to project what will happen in January, February because we may have to play very young players as starters.”
Farley anticipates having to use 25 or 30 players from his 2019 and 2020 freshmen classes, neither of which has gone through a spring practice. They could play pivotal roles when the Panthers begin playing their eight-game schedule Feb. 20 at home against Illinois State.
Development is critical because all FCS teams are preparing to play two seasons in roughly a 10-month period.
“We are going to play this season January through May, take a month off and then play another 12-game season August through December,” Farley said. “... We won’t have the 13 weeks of weight training and three months off for surgeries and stuff like that.
“We got to get a whole roster ready to play and be able to adapt to injuries and COVID-19 as two seasons unfold.”
Farley is working on a scenario where UNI will close the fall practice period with a fall game that potentially could allow limited fans.
UNI’s final practice is slated for Oct. 31.
BIG THREE OUT The Panthers lost a potential NFL draft pick in the spring when all-American tight end Briley Moore opted to transfer to Kansas State.
UNI still had three other players on its roster that were garnering NFL talk, but it looks like none of them — offensive tackle Spencer Brown, defensive end Elerson Smith and safety Xavior Williams — will be around.
“I would not anticipate any of those three would be in any of these practices,” Farley said. “Although, there have been conversations with all three of them still. Spencer is already out in California. The other two are still here. Elerson and Xavior are here finishing up school. All of them graduate in December.
“Those conversations and decisions we are still trying to figure out. There are some guys in the BCS that opted out and signed with agents that are trying to get back in now. So, again, I’m not going to count on them, but if they are available then they are a bonus because they are great players.
“I wouldn’t anticipate it, but I like to keep all our doors open and make sure everybody knows all their options before they make that final choice,” Farley said.
FALL GAMES: UNI aggressively looked into playing one to three fall games like fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference members North Dakota State and Missouri State are doing.
In the end, the Panthers chose not to for two primary reasons.
“The strategic move they made, that I think is very positive for them. They have been practicing full gear, full team since August,” Farley said. “Strategically I see where they’re at. Instead of having a spring game, NDSU is having a real game.
“We were aggressively contacting people and talking to people. We were mostly doing that in June, July and early August. Once our conference decided not to play, there were decisions made on, do we keep looking for a game or do we totally shut down and wait until spring? Our university decided not to play and for a lot of reasons. Because now you are talking the health of your players, the safety of your players, and the decision was made when COVID was very aggressive. That is when we quit looking for games. It was a choice we had to make.”
Farley added another reason the Panthers choose not to seek any fall games: The cost of testing required by safety protocols was prohibitive.
“It wasn’t a primary — safety was first — but the cost was second, and that cost for one game wasn’t worth it to the budget versus waiting to the spring,” Farley said. “The other thing I would tell you is our health care outside of the university, our health systems here gave us every opportunity to make the best choice. They were trying to help us every possible way they could to be cost efficient and accessible to student athletes so they could play.”
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!