CEDAR FALLS — On Northern Iowa’s second-to-last Saturday spring football practice at Waterloo’s Memorial Stadium, it was a rough day for the Panther defense.

With tackling as an option, defensive linemen were caught spying the quarterback instead of attacking. In turn, linebackers were fighting off second-level blockers and the offensive run game was gashing it, including a 50-yard-plus touchdown run by Tyler Hoosman.

In the passing game, on more occasions than the secondary group would like to remember, the defensive backfield was beaten, particularly over the top.

“That was embarrassing,” defensive back Xavior Williams said. “It was just a bad day for everybody.”

With just about any sport, the next step a coaching staff wants to see after a unit faces adversity is how it responds. In the remaining three spring practices after that fiasco, the UNI defense stepped up and finished strong.

“These last three practices I was happy,” defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson said. “They flew around and played fast, did a good job. The thing about our kids is they are resilient. They got embarrassed so they came out and corrected it.”

There is experience across the board on the defensive side of the ball, but there is also a ton of youth, and that was evident within the defensive line and linebacker groups during the spring.

UNI’s last line of defense, the defensive back group, has a little more experience so building depth there was a primary objective.

The Panthers return veterans Roosevelt Lawrence, Xavior Williams, Austin Evans, Christian Jegen, Korby Sander and Isaiah Nimmers. Sophomore Jevon Brekke played in a handful of games as a true freshman and fellow true freshman Shakespeare Williams was forced into the lineup at corner in the playoffs when injuries began to mount.

Jegen and Nimmers did not participate in the spring as part of their recovery process and Sander was hurt midway through the spring. All three should be full strength come August.

UNI played a 3-3-5 defense frequently down the stretch last year, so depth at defensive back will be paramount to what the Panthers want to accomplish on defense in 2019.

“That is really what you hope to do,” Johnson said. “The guys who weren’t able to participate in practice were at every meeting and those who were able to participate got a lot more reps, and the only way to get better at this game is to practice.”

For most of the spring, UNI rotated three at cornerback — senior Lawrence, junior Evans and junior college transfer Micah Mayberry.

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Xavior Williams, a first-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference cornerback, spent the entire spring at safety with Brekke, Zac Kibby and Sander.

Then there are players like Shakespeare Williams, Eric Mooney and Trevon Alexander, who lined up at a position Johnson referred to as a half-linebacker, half-safety spot.

Xavior Williams asked to try safety.

“I really went up to Coach Farley (head coach Mark) before spring ball and said I wanted to try it out because I thought it would be good for me in the long run to be able to play more than one position,” he said. “We both thought it would be a good idea.”

It is not a foreign concept within UNI’s defense to see players learn to play both corner and safety. Deiondre Hall, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, played both at UNI.

Evans floated between corner and safety his first two seasons in Cedar Falls, and Mayberry saw time at safety early before spending the last three-fourths of the spring at corner.

Williams being able to play safety is a big deal, Farley noted.

“Now we have the ability to move him if a guy gets hurt. We can move him to safety to get our best four on the field or he stays at corner,” Farley said. “He could be the moving part to make it all come together.

“I think to be a great player you’ve got to play in the other guys’ shoes and that is what I felt we could really grow Xavior as a player by doing.”

As good as Williams has been at corner for UNI with eight interceptions in his first two seasons, Johnson says he could be a better safety.

Williams has been a decent tackler at corner, but it’s not known if he can become a big hitter from the safety position. However, there is no doubt about him being around the ball.

“He has the ability to go get it, and he has as good of hands as anybody on our team, I think,” Johnson said.

In addition to the players who were in camp, UNI will add four defensive backs in August in Edwin Dearman of Houston, Texas, Luke Velky of Waverly-Shell Rock, Omar Brown of Minneapolis and Trey Lasek of Highland.

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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