CEDAR FALLS — The tone or message has not changed from University of Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley since spring practice ended April 27.
Farley’s Panthers begin preseason camp Friday and one of the top questions is who will replace 2 1/2-year starter Eli Dunne at quarterback.
UNI has four players Farley considers legitimate candidates — redshirt sophomore Jacob Keller, redshirt freshman Will McElvain and true freshmen Nate Martens and Justin Fomby.
Keller, McElvain and Martens, who enrolled early, all got significant reps during spring ball. Farley said at the conclusion of those workouts that Keller and McElvain, in no particular order, had emerged as 1A and 1B.
“I think there is a 1A and a 1B. Nate ... he is where a freshman should be,” Farley said. “You come to a two-a-day camp and after seven practices every freshman is going to look like that ... you are going to look confused.
“The key for him (Martens) is he will grow exponentially in those first 10 days of the fall because he has already been through this. That is where he has to take off is where it became confusing, that is where he has to pick up and run with it.
“That is why there is a 1A and 1B, but Nate is in the thick of it as much as anything,” Farley concluded.
Asked Monday during the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s preseason coaches’ teleconference, Farley said he has no timetable on when he will name a starter for UNI’s Aug. 31 season-opener at Iowa State.
“The best answer is instincts ... a sense of the proper time to do it,” Farley said. “You can’t pick one too soon. Some will develop a little later just because of knowledge and first you have to understand before you can show your skill set.”
Of the candidates, only Keller has appeared in a game for the Panthers, and that was all of two games last season when he completed his only pass for 18 yards in UNI’s win over Hampton, a game where he also rushed twice for eight yards.
“I feel a lot more comfortable playing with Coach Mahaffey (Ryan) and Coach Roper (Justin),” Keller said at the conclusion of spring practice. “I think all of us have gotten a lot more comfortable with the offense. We are making less mistakes, but we are still making some that we can fix.”
Moving on to the rest of the offense, the Panthers have a ton of experience beyond the quarterback position.
At running back, seniors Trevor Allen and Aaron Graham have extensive experience.
Tight end Briley Moore enters his senior season with numerous preseason All-America honors.
The wide receiver position has size and speed. It features Jaylin James, Deion McShane, Nick Fossey, Jalen Rima and the return of 2018 all-MVC Newcomer Team member Isaiah Weston, who missed last season with a knee injury. Add to that mix incoming freshman Logan Wolf, who was one of UNI’s top recruits.
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Up front there is also a wealth of experience with left guard Jackson Scott-Brown leading the pack. Spencer Brown, Matthew Vanderslice, Mason Neisen, Nick Ellis, Trevor Penning, Erik Sorensen and Colton Lueck all have experience.
Flipping the page to defense, Farley admits that unit needs to progress as much as any on the team.
“We have some work to do with our defense because of experience,” Farley said Monday. “We have to bring them back up to speed and we will see where that leads us up through camp.”
Up front, UNI graduated Rickey Neal and Bryce Douglas, two highly productive players.
There are veterans back who played important roles last season, including Elerson Smith, Brawntae Wells, Jared Brinkman and Seth Thomas.
Linebacker is also a position in flux. That group was decimated a year ago by injury and questions remain about who will take the field for the opener.
If completely recovered from a foot injury that caused him to miss all but six games and all of spring, Chris Koleravic will be among the top candidates. Bryce Flater got valuable time late, including two playoff starts. Alfonzo Lambert has also played extensive snaps.
Junior college transfers Spencer Cuvelier and Jackson Martens, both from Iowa Central, figure into the mix as do Brock Hadachek, Jordan Gayer, Riley Van Wyhe and converted running back Trevon Alexander.
“There are guys on this roster that have been part of those numbers,” Farley said when asked about lost production. “It’s more a team statistic. A good defense ... all those tackles come because of good units, not because of one or two good players. If our defensive structure is correct, the numbers will follow.”
The backfield is the most experienced unit on the defense, led by All-America candidate Xavior Williams at corner.
Williams spent the entire spring learning the safety position, but both Williams and Farley said that was to allow the Burlington native to become a more complete player.
The Panthers took a hit when safety Korby Sander suffered an ACL injury in the spring that will keep him out in 2020, but players like Christian Jegen, Austin Evans, Jevon Brekke, Zac Kibby, Shakespeare Williams, Suni Lane, Isaiah Nimmers, Roosevelt Lawrence and Eric Mooney have all played either corner or safety.
Additionally, junior college transfer Micah Mayberry was an early enrollee and participated at safety in the spring.
“It is just typically a lot of wait and see,” Farley said. “We all have work to do to see what we really have. We have had a good summer.”