CEDAR FALLS — Isaiah Weston entered last season embracing the opportunity to become a top target within the University of Northern Iowa’s receiving corps.
UNI head coach Mark Farley had no hesitation in declaring Weston well equipped to take over the role held by fifth-round NFL draft pick Daurice Fountain after a redshirt freshman season in which he recorded receptions in 10 games and caught 22 passes for 380 yards and five touchdowns.
Those plans suddenly changed during the Panthers’ first workout in pads when Weston tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
“Right when it happened, I didn’t even know,” recalled Weston, whose five touchdown receptions ranked second on the team behind Fountain’s 12 in 2017. “It felt more like a dead leg. I was still running and didn’t have any pain.
“Daurice Fountain left and I felt like it was a really good time to take the No. 1 spot for wide receiver. I wanted to try and make it my biggest season but injury fell on me and it was pretty much work in the dark, waiting until my time came. This season hopefully, if I can stay healthy, that’s exactly what I plan on doing.”
Weston’s return should elevate a receiving corps that Farley assesses as one with quality but not a lot of depth. Fourth-year starter Jaylin James has accumulated 86 catches and 952 receiving yards over the previous three campaigns. Fellow senior Jalen Rima has also seen action over the last three years, as well, and is looking to build upon a 21-catch, 337-yard season that included three touchdowns.
The size of Weston (6-4, 208), James (6-4, 207) and Rima (6-1, 205) could create space for sophomore Deion McShane to exploit out of the slot and on jet sweeps and bubble screens. First-year wide receivers coach Isaac Fruechte says the Panthers will try to get McShane the ball.
“He’s going to have a great opportunity to make some plays, and the kid can run,” Fruechte added. “He has great playmaking ability after he catches the ball.”
In pursuit of further depth, Suni Lane has been moved from defense to wideout while Nick Fossey has been slowed by injury after playing in 13 games his sophomore season. Then there’s Nick Phillips, a 5-foot-8, 189-pound junior from Iowa City Regina’s tradition-rich prep program. He’s impressed Farley and staff during camp.
“That guy makes every catch thrown to him,” Farley pointed out. “He’s diving all over the place, he’s as sound as the day is long. He won’t run a 4.4, but he’ll play like he’s a 4.4. He’s got that kind of heart to him and he’s the kind of guy you need to bring the most from that group.”
For Weston, who was limited in the spring, one key step toward recovery passed this fall when took his first tackle and bounced back up without any issues.
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“It reminded me that it’s the game of football,” Weston said of the hit. “It got the adrenaline running again so it’s really nice.
“When camp was starting up I had a lot of things in my head — if I had the same edge, am I going to be a little rusty coming in? Am I going to make a few rookie mistakes? Now I’m feeling very confident, running my routes the way I was. I’m pretty much where I left off before I got hurt so it’s a great feeling.”
While completing rehab work, Weston noticed James and Rima taking on larger leadership roles.
“They’re taking this season very seriously with the craftsmanship, the techniques, getting out and making plays,” Weston said. “They’re coming in with a great mindset.”
Even though a four-way quarterback battle has lingered, James doesn’t feel the lack of a clear starter has impacted the receiving corps.
“Even when it was the same guy throwing me the ball, the ball is going to be placed somewhere else every single time,” James noted. “No ball will ever be in the same spot. If anything, it’s the receiver’s job to stay open and make every single catch.”
Farley has challenged Rima to take the next step in his final collegiate season.
“He’s been here long enough, he’s got experience,” Farley said. “This one is on him. He needs to step to the plate and connect. … He has to make those plays that only Saturday will show — the run after catch, the breaking a tackle, the blocking you need on the return on a punt.”
Assessing his classmate, James noted that Rima works his butt off and is equipped to make the type of tough plays nobody really expects a receiver to make. Adding that Weston has worked himself into a place where he’s just as good or even better than before the injury, James anticipates big things from UNI’s receivers this fall.
“All of our guys have different capabilities,” James said. “As long as we can play smarter than the other team and play harder, we’ll be able to put ourselves in a good position.”