CEDAR FALLS — Eli Dunne was a good quarterback for the University of Northern Iowa during his first season as the starter a year ago.
The 6-foot-5 product of Grinnell High School helped the Panthers overcome a 2-3 start to win eight games and reach the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Individually, Dunne completed 62 percent of his 358 passes with 11 interceptions and 26 touchdowns in 12 starts.
Now, as he heads into his senior season, Dunne is determined to take his game to the next level, and that will be a key for a UNI team that wants more than just another trip to the postseason.
“It’s just kind of figuring out how to edge out teams in the fourth quarter and how to beat teams,” said Dunne. “We had a lot of close games last year. That’s just taking it day by day working in the weight room, the timing with the receivers in practices ... Just keep working at it and getting better day by day.”
Familiarity is one reason Dunne feels good about what’s ahead. He’s got experienced receivers like Jaylin James, Isaiah Weston, Jalen Rima and Aaron Graham, as well as veteran tight ends in Elias Nissen and Briley Moore.
“I know our receivers are really hungry,” said Dunne. “They’ve been working their butts off this offseason. They’ll make some plays, and they’ve got the ability to pull off a 70-yarder.
“We’ve built a camaraderie the past couple of years.”
Dunne will also be working with familiar offensive coaches, which wasn’t the case a year ago.
“We have the same coaches on the offensive side as last year, so we’re familiar with each other, we’re comfortable with each other and we kind of know what each other’s going to do,” Dunne noted.
No less important, Dunne is comfortable with his own football growth.
“I do feel like I’m a veteran now,” he explained. “I have experience. I know my way around here. I’ve been here a long time.
“Each camp and each season the game’s kind of slowed down for me. I’ve gotten to know the defenses and the routes. I definitely have a lot more confidence because I know what to expect. I know kind of what the defense is doing and the timing, so I’ve been getting more confidence to make those throws and those decisions.”
When head coach Mark Farley talks about his quarterbacks, it’s more about the mental part of the game than the physical.
“Eli Dunne is an experienced quarterback, a physical, strong quarterback for us and physically he can make the throws that he needs to, as you would expect from a fifth-year senior,” said Farley.
“Where he’ll get tested and where he’s made progress is taking on that role of what all quarterbacks have to have ... that factor of where a team has to surround you and believe in you making those last two-minute drives and that type of thing, which means you have to have great confidence.
“That’s what makes great quarterbacks different. We’re starting to see that in Eli. If he can show that on game days, I think you’ll see a different person under center the way he operates this season.”
Farley said Dunne has learned how to get the most out of plays that break down.
“Early in his career he probably made some choices when he started to scramble that maybe weren’t what you want to see, and that’s because of his experience. If you’re fast, you can run away from your problems and look like you know what you’re doing. If you’re a big guy that throws, you can’t run away from your problem, so you’d better throw yourself out of your problem.
“He had to learn that in front of everybody and I think that’s made him a better quarterback today.”
Should anything happen to Dunne, as it did last season when he missed a game with an injury, Colton Howell and Jacob Keller are the next two in line. Howell is a senior junior college transfer from Kansas who gave up a redshirt year to lead the Panthers to critical wins when Dunne was out a year ago. Keller is a redshirt freshman from Illinois who is having a good preseason camp.
“Jacob has progressed since last year,” said Farley. “We’ll keep giving him a lot of reps so he keeps developing. Colton, he brings a lot of game experience and he brings wins. He’s taken the role in tough situations and he’s won. You can’t measure that all the time.
“Another one who has piqued my look is Will McElvain, a freshman from Des Moines. He’s got a different demeanor about him. He’s very quick with a great arm and you can see the athleticism.”