CEDAR FALLS — If the University of Northern Iowa football team hopes to catch the North Dakota States and James Madisons of the Football Championship Subdivision, the Panthers will have to run fast and run hard.
It’s a point of emphasis this season for head coach Mark Farley, whose 34 years in the UNI program and 18 as head coach have illustrated the power of a multi-dimensional, explosive and productive ground game.
“You can go back to the 80s as much as the 90s and into the 2000s,” noted Farley. “When we have two runners that are somewhere near 1,000 yards, we’re a really good football team.
“That’s what I’m looking for. Part of it is on the offensive line and the tight ends, and part of it is on the running backs. The guys carrying the ball have to make yards and make somebody miss. You’ve got to run away from some people. You’ve got to make a 10-yard play into a 50-yard play. Now you’ve got explosive plays, and that’s how you get 1,000-yard rushers.”
Farley knows his Panther history. The top 10 rushing teams ever at UNI in terms of total yards also posted some of the best records and made the deepest runs in the FCS playoffs.
The 2015 playoff quarterfinal team that tops the list with 3,266 yards on the ground featured 1,000-yard rushers Aaron Bailey (1,334) and Tyvis Smith (1,079). In 2005 when the Panthers played for the national championship, David Horne piled up 1,141 yards and Terrance Freeney had 656. In 2001, an 11-3 league co-champion and FCS semifinal squad got 1,383 from Adam Benge and 957 from Richard Carter. In 2003, UNI was 10-3, shared the league title and reached the postseason quarterfinals with Freeney rumbling for 1,261 yards and Carter adding 859.
The Panthers will look to a number of ball carriers to provide that production this season. Trevor Allen is back after a 611-yard season and ankle surgery. Tyler Hoosman, Alphonso Soko and Aaron Graham also return while the incoming group at running back includes redshirt freshmen Sam Schnee and Trevon Alexander and true freshmen Sam Gary, Christian Seres, Kendall Robinson and Nick McCabe.
“What’s changed the most is that for really the last three years it’s been Marcus Weymiller, Marcus Weymiller, Marcus Weymiller and Trevor Allen out there helping him out,” said UNI running backs coach Nick Danielson. “It looked a little different lining up in the spring and not having Marcus’ leadership out there, but that room has stepped into it pretty quickly.”
Danielson loves the diversity he sees among his four veterans.
“Tyler’s a battering ram,” said Danielson. “Tyler can hammer it home. He’s got plenty good quicks and he’s got plenty good agility and explosiveness out in the oipen field, but he carries it very differently than a lot of the group. That kid knows how to run behind his pads. That’s not saying someone else doesn’t, but he’s a little different.
“Then the skill set between those other three that’s really interesting is the receiving out of the backfield. Trevor Allen has started games at UNI as a receiver. Aaron Graham started games at UNI as a receiver. And Alphonso Soko in high school he lined up all over the football field. They just tried to get him the ball down in Muscatine.
“Really, the skill set between running behind our pads downhill and the dynamic coming out of the backfield in the screen game and checkdowns and things like that, we’ve got everything pretty much covered when it’s the four guys running with the 1s and 2s right now.”
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Taking it a step farther, Danielson cited three key criteria for his running backs — explosive playmaking ability, not taking negative plays and pass protection.
“Everyone’s going to have a different skill set, and what our guys have to realize is not every play is also going to be the home run shot,” he explained. “In our theory, an explosive play is punching in a one-yard touchdown when there’s 11 in the box. An explosive play might be a 60-yard run, but an explosive play might also be a checkdown that you take for a first down on third-and-12.
“There’s no secret you have to be able to pass protect when you’re playing running back at Northern Iowa, and that’s what I demand with my background in coaching and the positions I’ve worked with. That and the explosive playmaking and never taking negative plays is what we’re really looking for because ultimately that factors into production.
“If you’re staying ahead of the chains and constantly making first downs, you’re keeping your offense on the field and your defense on the sideline.”
Rushing production will also come from the quarterback position.
“Obviously we have some different athletes back there,” said Danielson. “They’ll play a role. They know they’re going to have to get us some first downs. Our job is to surround them with some talent both in the backfield and flexed out wide to kind of lift that to a veteran level and let them lead this football team.”
That doesn’t mean double-digit designed runs each game from the quarterbacks, Farley added.
“You don’t need to run the quarterback 16 times a game to say you have a running quarterback. If he runs five times a game he becomes a threat to the secondary as long as he’s productive with those five runs.”
Ultimately, it all starts with Allen, a 230-pound senior from Waukee. He has stepped into a strong leadership role this season and embodies the ‘we’ over ‘me’ mentality that builds character and culture.
“I expect to perform like a lead tailback, but I’m not expecting to be a lead tailback,” Allen said. “I’m expecting that whoever has the hot hand that game will be playing whether that be Aaron Graham or a freshman running back.
“I’m well aware it’s not a one-man job and will never be a one-man job. You’re going to need at least three running backs to make it through a complete season and keep everyone healthy, and I feel we have the full capabilities of doing that this year.”