Optimism with a Dose of Question Marks as UNI Begins '23 Campaign
Coming into the 2023 season, the split in opinions on UNI is as divided as I remember in some time. On the optimistic side, there are those who see a potential seed. They will point to the growth made by the offense in its first season under Bodie Reeder. They'll point to the return of Theo Day, who is considered one of the top draft-eligible quarterbacks in the country, regardless of the subdivision. You will likely hear that the 3 conference losses were by a combined 7 points. The first was a 2-point loss at North Dakota in the second game of the season while breaking in the new offense. A 2-point loss at Illinois State on their homecoming. Finally, the most painful was a 3-point loss on a field goal as time expired against South Dakota State. You'll hear that UNI won 5 of their final 6 games of the season in a largely dominating fashion.
On the flip side, it is easy to point out the number of snaps on both sides of the ball lost to graduation. Including nearly the entire back 7 on a defense that was considered one of the most underachieving of the Farley era. While there is a significant loss in the number of starts it doesn't mean there isn't experience on the roster. A potential saving grace is the players asked to step in this season will not be freshmen or sophomores. Many players have been in college for at least 3 seasons now.
Offensively, Theo Day is going to garner all of the headlines. People could, and have, written entire articles on just Theo and his expectations coming into the season. Theo's numbers last season are pretty mind-numbing to look at, but even more so when you look at his numbers once he was comfortable in the new offense. In the last 5 games, he threw for 1,579 yards and 16 touchdowns. Mark Farley mentioned the biggest change for Theo from last year to this year is confidence. Farley talked at length about Theo's physical talent while pointing out Theo lacked confidence in his talents, but that is no longer the case. If Theo can replicate his performances from his first two seasons in Cedar Falls he will graduate the best, statistical, quarterback in UNI history.
UNI Quarterback Theo Day | PC: (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)
The main target for Theo entering 2023 is 6'3'' Sergio Morancy. Sergio racked up 510 yards on just 26 receptions and led the team in touchdowns and yards per reception (19.62). Joining Sergio at the top of the receiver depth chart is 5'10'' Sam Schnee, who couldn't differ in style more from Morancy. While Sergio is an over-the-top deep threat, Schnee is a skilled route runner adept at finding holes in the defense. He used Sergio's deep threat to his advantage, hauling in 48 receptions for 764 yards. Of his 48 receptions 37 of them went fo a first down or touchdown. The final pieces of the passing game are tight end Alex Allen and receiver Logan Wolf. Both of them, when healthy, are as explosive as you get at their positions. Allen is considered a top 10-15 tight end coming into the season. Wolf has struggled to stay healthy his entire career, but when he is on the field there is a match-up problem with his speed and size.
The biggest holes on the offense to fill will be at running back and offensive line. At running back, the loss of two 730+ yard rushers Dom Williams and Vance McShane leaves a massive void. Harrison Bey-Buie and Josh Jenkins are the expected workhorses. Joining them is transfer Tyjahree Edwards, who spent last season at UTSA. Edwards wasn't able to gain the traction he had hoped for and found a new home in Cedar Falls. Edwards landed at UTSA after spending time at Butler Community College, where UNI recruited him heavily before Edwards ultimately ended up at UTSA.
None of the skill guys will matter if the offensive line doesn't fill in the holes left by losing 3 starters. Back are Jared Penning and Tristan Roper on the edges. The center position will be filled by 6th-year lineman Chase Arends, who didn't start in 2022 but did start multiple games in 2021. To help fill in some holes, a few transfers have been brought in and it seems as though Josh Volk (Iowa) and Kyle Kelly (Arkansas State) are in line for the final two starting spots. The offensive line is the main area where the idea of a lack of starts doesn't mean a lack of experience. There are 12 linemen on the roster that are in their 3rd year or later in college ball. Helping lead the group is the return of former offensive line coach Rick Nelson. In Rick's previous stint in Cedar Falls (2000-2015), he coached 22 All-American and 29 All-Conference selections along with sending multiple offensive linemen to the NFL.
Defense is where the picture of what to expect becomes much cloudier. Gone from last year is nearly everyone from the back seven 2-deep including multiple players who have earned All-Conference or All-American honors in their careers. The strength of the defense coming into the year is the defensive line; where 5 players have multiple years starting and playing many snaps. Khristian Boyd will be the most known on the line. During media day, Farley said Boyd is "as good as I've seen since I've been here". When you consider the history of defensive linemen at UNI through Farley's tenure, you start to realize what level of praise that is. Joining Boyd is Caden Houghtelling, who had 27 tackles in less than half of the season due to an injury. Devin Rice and Cordarrius Bailey round out the front. This group will need to be ready to go starting with the first snap of the season to take the stress off the back 7.
The most notable returners in the back 7 are Woo Governor and Edwin Dearman. Dearman is the leading returning tackler from last season, recording at least 6 tackles in 7 of the final 9 games while also recording at least 1 TFL or PBU in 9 of 11. I believe Dearman would have significantly more recognition coming into the season if it wasn't for Woo Governor. Woo was 1st team All-Conference according to Bluebloods, 2nd team All-Conference in the MVFC honors, and is rated as one of the top corners in the FCS.
The most important "returners" to the defense aren't players. They are Defensive Coordinator Jeremiah Johnson and DB Coach Keelon Brookins, who both spent 2022 at Kent State. Watching UNI's defense last season was painful at times, even with all of the returning talent. It was clear the scheme and preparation wasn't where it has been in the past, and it's not a coincidence it happened when JJ and Keelon left. In 9 years at UNI before 2022, Jeremiah Johnson orchestrated one of the best defenses in the nation year after year. In those 9 seasons, UNI ranked top 15 in total defense 5 times, gave up less than 315 yards of total offense 5 times, and less than 20 points per game in 6 of them. Also in that 9-year period, JJ produced 30 1st Team All-Conference defenders, 5 MVFC DPOY, 15 AP FCS All-Americans, and 7 AFCA All-Americans. In 2021 UNI ranked 5th nationally in scoring defense and produced 3 1st Team All-Conference players and the conference defensive player of the year. Keelon transferred to play for JJ and Farley from Wisconsin and then immediately joined the coaching staff after graduating. As a coach, he helped guide the cornerback position to 9 All-Conference honors.
Finally, I need to talk about kicker Matthew Cook. Heading into his final season the Cedar Falls native already holds the school record for field goals made (67) and consecutive PATs made (124 - he's never missed one.). Cook also has 325 career points and needs just 59 to pass David Johnson for the school record. Cook also comes in with every preseason award you can imagine. The value of someone like Matthew Cook is nearly immeasurable. He is as close as you can get to automatic from inside 45 while being able to extend back to 57. Given how tight games in the Valley tend to be, he is a valuable weapon to be able to roll out.
What will 2023 bring for UNI? It's genuinely tough for me to hold back excitement about what I see as the ceiling. Are there some questions needing answers? Absolutely. Are Panther fans more confident about this year than they have been in most of the last decade? Absolutely, and it's not just Panther fans. Take some time to find clips of Mark Farley talking during media day this year and compare it to previous years.
UNI Head Coach Mark Farley | PC: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
You can hear the extra confidence and energy in his voice. There is a tone that has been missing since about 2011. If that tone is indicative of what's to come, the Panthers should be in for a special season.