CEDAR FALLS – There is nothing quite like game experience.
When you look at the experience the University of Northern Iowa football team will have at tight end next fall, it would be easy to feel good. And Panther offensive coordinator Ryan Mahaffey feels good.
Mahffey returns a preseason all-American candidate Briley Moore, a two-year veteran in Tristan Bohr and three other players who all saw significant snaps during UNI’s run to the 2019 FCS quarterfinals.
“Anytime you have experience at the position you feel fortunate,” Mahaffey said.
Mahaffey knows there is probably no position on the football field that a lack of experience will be exposed more than at tight end. A player has to have a strong understanding of the run game, pass protection and pass routes.
Mahaffey felt fortunate also in 2019 when he had Moore and Bohr returning. Then four games in, Mahaffey had no experience.
Moore was hurt midway through the first quarter of UNI’s season opener at Iowa State. Bohr went down with a knee injury at Weber State in game four. Mahaffey was left with redshirt freshmen Jayden Scott and Alex Allen.
The sudden lack of experience forced UNI to get creative. The Panthers used offensive lineman Matthew Vanderslice and Colton Leuck at tight end, and linebacker Brock Hadacheck moved over from the defense to add more depth.
In the end, Mahaffey was proud of the fight his group put forth.
“For those guys it was a great opportunity to step up and perform,” Mahaffey said. “On Saturday’s there is no substitute for game experience. Credit them for working hard and getting physically and mentally ready to play and do some challenging things, and they remained positive doing it.”
At the same time, there was a drop-off in production. One year after UNI tight ends caught 52 passes for 706 yards and six scores, the group caught 18 passes for 129 yards and no scores, and 13 of those receptions were by Moore and Bohr before they were injured.
The return of Moore, whose 39 catches in 2018 were the most by a UNI tight end in more than a decade, will help.The experience Scott, Allen and Hadachek got gives the Panthers, who add redshirt freshman Maverick Gatrost to that mix, the most depth it’s had at tight end in a long time.
“There were times we were having talks about whether to put him out there on the field,” Mahaffey said of Gatrost. “But he got that redshirt year, which allows you to get yourself more prepared physically and mentally. He is a guy we are counting on to go out and compete for a starting job.”
Redshirt freshman Liam McComas, Dawson Fenton and incoming freshman Noah Abbott add to the depth.
“We have four, five, six guys who have taken meaningful snaps,” Mahaffey said. “Those experiences they got last season should help motivate them into this season and give them confidence to perform, add depth and value to an accomplished group.
“Very pleased with that group, but still a lot left as a group to be done.”
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