CEDAR FALLS — It was set up to be his breakout season.
The University of Northern Iowa football coaching staff had every intention of making Isaiah Weston a focal point of the Panther offense last season.
Then, three practices in, it was gone.
Weston, a sophomore from Albertville, Minn., suffered an ACL injury in the preseason last August and for a time, the 2017 all-Missouri Valley Football Conference All-Newcomer team pick did not feel complete.
Having never been injured before, Weston admittedly struggled some while watching his team from the sidelines.
“It was very frustrating being that was my first serious injury,” said Weston, who gave glimpses of what he could do as a redshirt freshman in 2017, catching 22 passes for 380 yards and five scores. “I would say it was one of the lowest points of my life because I had mostly been injury free.
“There was a period there where it was going to rehab, going to school and I didn’t have that happy (football) aspect. Part of me wasn’t there.”
Soon, however, the 6-foot-4, 208-pound wide receiver shook off the self pity and did what he could to help the team and better himself mentally for when he became physically strong again.
The labor of his efforts is starting to bear fruit for this year’s ninth-ranked Panthers.
Weston had two catches for 48 yards against Iowa State and then was one of two UNI receivers with more than 100 receiving yards against Southern Utah when he hauled in five balls for 105 yards and his sixth career touchdown reception, a 39-yard grab and run in the second quarter of a 34-14 win.
Weston is averaging 21.86 yards per catch, which ranks second in the MVFC among receivers with seven or more catches, and his career yards per catch average is 18.4.
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UNI head coach Mark Farley believes that should be the standard for Weston, the nephew of two former Panthers — former UNI wide receiver Jake Kothe, who made 61 catches for 887 yards from 1992-95, and former women’s basketball player Wendy McCoy.
“I think he should be more explosive. That is one thing I hoped he would be,” Farley said. “That just shows my expectations of him because he is a very good football player.”
While Farley never wants to see a player hurt, he adds the year off has been huge for Weston in his growth.
“It really helped him mature more than anything else,” Farley said. “He’s always been excited to play the game, but when you have to sit a year it brings more energy to the game because you know how special it is to be on the field.
“He is a better football player today by going through what happened last year.”
The Panthers were cautious with Weston as he rehabbed his injury, knowing he’d be a huge piece of the puzzle if they could keep him healthy. In the spring, he was allowed to dress and go through individual drills, but was held out of contact drills.
“I understood. I actually agreed (with being held back),” Weston said. “It was seven months when we started spring ball so I wasn’t fully healthy. (Spring) was a great period for me to sharpen my instincts again. Following camp I had a lot of confidence back because my knee held up pretty well.”
Weston admits he had a couple of scares in the spring where the knee gave out after he jumped to make catches, but only once during preseason camp where it stiffened after a long practice. He says he hasn’t had any issues with it since.
“He hasn’t shown any hesitancy,” Farley said.
Weston adds he’s probably in the best shape of his life, crediting that, in part, to freshman quarterback Will McElvain.
“I’m definitely running around a lot more,” Weston smiled. “In high school, I didn’t have a quarterback that left the pocket or scrambled a lot and the same when I was playing with Eli (Dunne). With Will moving out of the pocket, we are running around a lot more, but it is also creating a lot more opportunities to create explosive plays.”