Northern Iowa enters 2013 with something to prove
CEDAR FALLS The air around the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls isn't as jovial as it's been in the past.
Coming off only the second losing season in Mark Farley's decorated tenure as Coach of the Northern Iowa football team, the Panthers ranked No. 16 in the preseason Coaches poll approach 2013 with a chip on their shoulder.
"We have a lot to prove," said sophomore quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen. "We appreciate (being ranked), but we have a lot to prove after what happened last year. We need to prove we're in those seeds and even improve that. I want to see us No. 1. Hopefully we can get there."
The Panthers may be back in the rankings again after falling out last year, but that is by no means a sign they'll automatically be back atop the Missouri Valley Football Conference. In two polls Coach Mark Farley referenced in his address during UNI Media Day on Wednesday, Northern Iowa sits behind three conference opponents.
Illinois State, South Dakota State and the program at the top of the FCS heap the last two years, No. 1 North Dakota State, all sit ahead of them.
"If you question a UNI football player if they belong, there's an irritation factor there," Farley said. "We are (No. 16), but I told the team last night: 'In another poll we're No. 12. In those same two polls, we are the fourth team in this league (Missouri Valley Football Conference) ... You will not see December at No. 4. Can't happen.'
"We're fourth. We have to prove ourselves, the factor of belonging."
If Northern Iowa is to prove themselves this season, they surely will need continued production from running back David Johnson, and a breakout year for Kollmorgen, who started every game at quarterback as a red-shirt freshman for the Panthers.
But maybe the most crucial area for the UNI offense lies in the trenches, where the Panthers only return two starters to an offensive line that isn't as big as it used to be.
"The offensive line is a work in progress," Farley said. "We're not quite as big as we were six years ago, where we were like a snow plow. What we have now I think we have an intelligent offensive line, but I think we have to be a little more finesse. We're still going to do the things we do, but there's a little bit of differences of how you use your men so they can use their abilities a little bit to play to their strengths."
It was telling that Farley who addressed the media for more than 40 minutes Wednesday, pouring extensively over his football team barely mentioned the star of his team in Johnson.
The back accounted for 1,404 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground and through the air last season, but unless the new-look offensive line led by senior captain Dan Kruger can pave the way, there's no sense in bringing him up.
"We can talk about David Johnson all we want, but there's nothing to be said unless you have a real good offensive line with a tight end to move the football with," Farley said. "I think we can do some things with our players to help our offensive line be successful. They are a work in progress, and I don't have a lot of answers for them (yet)."
Kruger, who is a self-described man of few words, will be looked up to by a young offensive line as a leader this season.
That 5-6 record weighs on all the players, and perhaps because it's not a normal occurrence under Farley, they want nothing more than to make amends.
"It's definitely in the back of your mind every day. We were 5-6 last year, and it's important to me to have a winning season and make it back to the playoffs," Kruger said. "This past summer I've seen a lot of hard work, really coming together as a group, almost as a family. Even though we had a losing season last year, we still came together."
To that end, a somewhat remarkable thing happened, at least in Farley's estimation. Over the summer, 85 of the 95 players on the team stayed in Cedar Falls to work out, watch film and bond as a team.
Johnson credited Kollmorgen and Kruger as those who spearheaded the effort to get things going, as the coaches are prohibited from working with players in the off-season. Johnson said over the summer he saw "everyone started focusing more, talking to each other more, learning the offense more and just communicating."
It was clear in Farley's voice that he took pride in his players' summer and their commitment to the program.
"Our players have to stay and invest in this program, and invest in themselves to stay. They are not awarded anything to stay here," Farley said. "There's a lot of investment in these guys to this program, and they expect more than what you expect of them. So when (the 5-6 season) happened to them, they took that to heart and a lot of those guys stayed."
With new faces on the offensive line, a whole new defensive backfield and key returners at the skill positions, 2013 opens with some promise for Northern Iowa.
Despite that, the Panther players and coaches know all the positive talk in the world won't mean anything when they take the field for their season opener at Iowa State on Aug. 31.
"We're hungry (and) we have a chip on our shoulder from last year," Kollmorgen said. "We have a lot to prove that we're a good team."