CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — The voters say Northern Iowa will be a top 20 football team this fall.
Mark Farley cast a slightly different ballot.
Even though UNI dropped to a 5-6 record in 2012, the preseason polls gave Farley’s team a measure of respect. In the Coaches Football Championship Subdivision rankings, the Panthers stand 16th.
Farley, though, put a different spin on things during Wednesday’s annual football media day. He pointed out that three fellow members of the Missouri Valley Football Conference — reigning FCS champion North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Illinois State - are ranked higher than UNI.
To Farley, it’s an indication that UNI has some resume polishing to do after plunging to a 5-6 record in 2012. That’s one of the messages the head coach has delivered to his players during the early days of fall camp.
“You can say we’re No. 12 in the country,” Farley told the Panthers. “You can say No. 16. You are No. 4 in the league. ... You will not see December at No. 4. It can’t happen.”
Farley added, “We’re fourth. We have to prove ourselves — the fact that we belong.”
In other words, while UNI has a healthy share of talent on the roster, the Panthers’ chances of making the FCS playoffs in December depend on better performance across the board, not to mention filling some gaps in the offensive line, defensive secondary and on special teams.
Said Farley Wednesday, “I would say we have to improve the entire program — from the weight room to the conditioning in the summer to the classroom to the football.”
That process has been underway for some time, and the evidence indicates the players are willing and eager to do what it takes to push aside the memories of UNI’s first losing season in a decade.
For instance, 85 Panthers attended summertime workouts conducted by strength and conditioning coaches Jed Smith and Nick Davis.
“That’s the highest we’ve ever been in all the years I’ve been here,” said Farley. “That’s really unheard of — to get to that number.”
When the players weren’t lifting weights or running, they heard a few things about 2012.
Said sophomore quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen, “Jed did a great job this summer. One of the things he had us do was go up and stand in front of the team and say what we learned from being a loser. That was pretty great. We said what was on our minds and what we learned and how we’re going to improve. That’s one thing I really appreciated.”
Zach Cutkomp, the veteran linebacker coming back from knee surgery added, “It definitely wasn’t a sweet feeling, but (summer workouts) did a lot for our motivation. Last year, we might have gotten a little complacent.”
Cutkomp is one of several Panthers expected to return to action after missing most of 2012 with injuries. Sam Tim, who tried to play through a broken hand a year ago, also returns at linebacker, as does Max Busher. Cedar Falls High graduate Collin Albrecht is back from a dislocated knee and ready to play along the defensive line.
Kevin Vereen hopes he’s recovered from persistent foot problems that benched the wide receiver.
The bad news for UNI is, a few more players are hurt. Offensive linemen Kevin Carroll and Ben Wallace are done for the year with shoulder and knee injuries, respectively. Senior defensive tackle Mac O’Brien broke a foot in the off-season, and it’s not clear when he’ll return.
So the search continues for offensive linemen to help veterans Dan Kruger and Jack Rummells. The defensive secondary will be remade, although thinks Maryland transfer Makinton Dorelant and redshirt freshman Charles Brown are strong candidates at the corners.
Who will be the next John Hubbard at deep snapper? Farley mentioned two names Wednesday – senior Ryan Dixon and junior college transfer Trent Simpson. Who will replace Kyle Bernard? There are two options – sophomore Logan Bieghler and freshman Sam Kuhter.
Those questions will be answered in time. So will others, as Farley mixes in transfers like quarterback Brion Carnes and safety Ray Mitchell with established Panthers Kollmorgen, safety Deiondre Hall plus running back David Johnson and a deep corps of receivers.
All of them, rookies, newcomers and veterans, know one thing.
“We have a lot to prove,” said Kollmorgen.
©2013 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)
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