CEDAR FALLS — The door is wide open.
Two seasons ago, Northern Iowa linebackers coach D.J. Vokolek could rest on the shoulders of all-conference middle linebacker Jared Farley to run his defense.
Last season, it was super steady Duncan Ferch who was always in the right places while earning second-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors patrolling the middle of the Panthers’ defense.
But when UNI kicks off against Iowa State on Aug. 31, neither of those guys will be near the Panther sidelines.
In fact, UNI graduated three linebackers with starting experience from last season’s second-round playoff team — Ferch, Blake Thomas and Kendrick Suntken.
“The last two years I’ve been here we have always had guys with a lot of playing experience,” Vokolek said. “We are a little different this year. We have some guys who have played, but not a lot.
“The inside linebacker position is wide open right now. Guys are progressing, but it is an open competition.”
Sophomore Chris Kolarevic was among the MVFC leaders in tackles when he suffered a season-ending foot injury at South Dakota last season. Kolarevic’s 65 tackles at the time of his injury still ranked fifth on the team. He is a non participant in spring drills while rehabbing his injury.
Alphonso Lambert played in 12 of 13 games last year at outside linebacker and recorded 38 tackles, but also has missed much of the spring with injury.
Grundy Center native Bryce Flater began the 2018 season playing on special teams, but was starting inside linebacker in the playoffs after injuries to Kolarevic, Suntken and a career-ending injury to Jake Hartford.
“He (Bryce) is a guy I expect more from because of his experience,” Vokolek said. “He’s doing a good job. He played a lot of special teams, played some defense.
“(Kolarevic) is a guy who played a lot of snaps for us at the beginning of the year. That will add a little more experience when you add him, and we are looking forward to getting him back.”
After Flater, Kolarevic and Lambert, the experience playing linebacker in a UNI defense drops off dramatically.
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“Obviously, we are really young and still learning,” said Flater, who recorded 26 tackles in 11 games.
Next in line are redshirt sophomores Riley Van Wyhe of Rock Rapids and Brock Hadachek of La Porte City, redshirt freshman Jordan Gayer of Waverly, as well as Weston Schultz and Zac Ebeling.
“The thing is those guys are young, but they have been in the program,” Vokolek said. “They are not redshirts anymore. They are guys we have to count on. You can’t get through a year with just two linebackers. Injuries are going to happen, and you’d love to be able to play as many guys as you can, and this group has that opportunity.”
Vokolek has been loud and in the face of his young charges.
“You’ve got to take the criticism to get better,” Flatter said. “You have to listen to what he says, not how he says it. That is his main thing.”
There will be additional help in the trenches in the form of junior college transfers Spencer Cuvelier and Jackson Martens, who are both coming over from an Iowa Central Community College team that won eight games in 2018.
Cuvelier enrolled early and is going through spring drills, while Martens will join the Panthers in June and go through summer workouts in preparation for preseason camp.
“The big thing ... you’ve got to come in and learn the defense for sure,” said Cuvelier, who ranked ninth nationally with 96 tackles for the Tritons last fall, including 22 for loss. “It’s tough to play if you don’t know what is going on. My focus these first two weeks is trying to learn the defense, know the right calls, alignments.
“It is just a big process and I’m happy to be here this spring so it will come quicker in the fall.”
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Cuvelier, a native of Cresco, has three seasons of eligibility left.
The competition for playing time will carry deep into August like several other positions for the Panthers. Vokolek has one message for his group.
“Everybody is the same right now. The door is wide open for them,” Vokolek said.