CEDAR FALLS — Xavior Williams was an outstanding cornerback for the University of Northern Iowa football team last season.
After starting eight games and earning Freshman All-America honors his first season in the lineup, the junior from Burlington (Notre Dame High School) picked off four passes, broke up three more, recorded 42 tackles in 11 games (10 starts) and earned first-team all-Missouri Football Conference honors a year ago.
“He’s a tremendous corner and a tremendous athlete,” said UNI head coach Mark Farley.
Williams is bigger, stronger and just as determined as he heads into his junior season.
“I worked really hard to put on some weight and get a lot stronger, which I have,” Williams said during the Panthers’ preseason media day. “I put on about 10 pounds.
“That’s probably been the weakest part of my game, aggressiveness and tackling and getting off blocks. Everybody knew I had to improve on that, so that was a big thing this offseason.
“I’m hoping to have a bigger year.”
While Farley can pencil in Williams at one cornerback spot, one of fall camp’s developing stories will be who joins him in the starting secondary.
There are plenty of talented and capable candidates with a wide range of experience.
At the other cornerback, Butler Community College transfer Micah Mayberry has joined the competition with veterans Austin Evans and Roosevelt Lawrence. Evans, a junior, had 23 tackles, an interception and two pass break-ups last season. Lawrence, a senior, was in on 32 stops with one pick and one break-up. Mayberry, a high school teammate and friend of UNI tight end Briley Moore, had 24 tackles and eight pass break-ups for Butler CC.
At safety, UNI suffered a significant setback in the spring when Korby Sander was lost for the season due to injury.
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“No question when he got hurt in the spring I felt that all summer,” said Farley. “He was one of those guys you couldn’t afford to lose at the time. But, you always look for an upside of it all and at least it happened in the spring where we could find some players throughout the summer to help fill that spot.”
The Panthers return senior Christian Jegen (62 tackles, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble), and junior Zac Kibby. Both are making strong bids for starting roles. Meanwhile, Jevon Brekke, Suni Lane, Isaiah Nimmers and Shakespeare Williams are trying to work their way into the defensive backfield rotation.
Brekke moved from linebacker to safety, and Nimmers made 21 tackles with one interception and a fumble recovery last season.
“Jevon Brekke took his game to another level because of that move, I really think,” said Farley. “He took the challenge on, and he’s not giving up his spot. In fact, he’s played to the level he could win the spot.
“Zac Kibby plays with about as much heart and energy as anybody on the football team. He doesn’t want to give up his spot.”
There’s one more intriguing option in Spencer Perry, who transferred in from South Alabama. Coming out of high school in Newman, Ga., Perry was ranked among the top 35 safeties in the country by ESPN.com, Scout.com and 247Sports.com. He began his collegiate career at Notre Dame where he redshirted as a freshman, then transferred to South Alabama where he had to sit out another year under NCAA Division I transfer rules before returning to action in eight games a year ago.
“He’s really tall (6-3) and long and athletic,” said Farley. “The first five days we were trying to figure out where he was going to be the next three days. That (boundary safety or rover) is the position that he will play. Now, he’s got to go win the position. He is a good player.”
Farley is excited to see how it all shakes out.
“We’ll just get the four best defensive backs out there,” he said.
Williams is confident it will be an area of strength for the UNI defense.
“We’ve got experience, which is good. Everybody knows what they’re doing, but we’ve still got to work on some things,” he said. “Everybody is working hard. We’re trying to be the best we can be.”