CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – The University of Northern Iowa football program will kick-off spring practices this week, hitting the turf on Friday, March 28 for their first practice.
UNI’s offense will look to continue momentum built off of ending the 2013 season on a three-game winning streak. The Panthers have several veteran players that will look to get snaps this spring, but the offensive staff is excited to see the younger players step in and make plays.
“We want to see those younger guys step in so that we feel comfortable subbing them in, but I also want to see players like David Johnson get better too,” associate head coach and co-offensive coordinator Bill Salmon said.
“To improve the offensive football team it isn’t just about the guys stepping in, but everyone getting better including guys like David, Sawyer, Brion, Chad and Kevin. Everyone needs to continue to improve and that will improve our offense.”
With 20 seniors on this years’ team, the Panthers will have no shortage of experience on the field, especially with nine of those seniors playing on the offensive side of the ball. Headlining the senior class will be starting running back Johnson.
The Clinton, Iowa native is now tied for fourth all-time in career rushing touchdowns, seventh all-time in career points and fourth all-time in career rushing yards with 3,129. He closed out the 2013 season with 1,286 yards on the ground and finished 11th in the FCS in all-purpose yards, adding his 393 yards through the air.
He is just one of three players in UNI history to rush for 1,000 yards and receive for 1,000 yards in a career. Johnson is also just the sixth running back at UNI to rush for 1,000 or more yards in two seasons.
Johnson was joined in the backfield by senior Evan Williams and sophomore Tyvis Smith. Both Williams and Smith will look to get snaps in behind Johnson this spring, along with redshirt freshman J’Veyon Browning out of Kansas City, Kan.
“What we would like to see out of spring practices is someone to step up behind Johnson,” Salmon said. “Evan did a little bit last season but was dealing with some injuries and Tyvis Smith stepped in as well, but we want to see if some of the new kids can step in there and do it.”
The Panthers had two quarterbacks handing the ball off to the running back corps last season with junior two-year starter Sawyer Kollmorgen and senior transfer Brion Carnes. The combination of Kollmorgen’s strong arm and leadership along with Carnes’s quick feet and explosive ability proved tough for teams to cover.
Kollmorgen is now seventh all-time at UNI in career touchdown passes. He has played in 21 games in his career at UNI and has thrown 35 touchdowns. He is now ninth all-time in passing yards with 4,284, finishing the 2013 season with 1,824 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Carnes started the last three games for the Panthers after Kollmorgen suffered a concussion against Illinois State, leading UNI to three wins in a row. He finished the season with 438 yards and two touchdowns, along with being the second highest rusher for the Panthers with 226 yards on the ground.
“Having Sawyer and Brion makes defenses try to defend and prepare for both of them,” Salmon said. “I don’t know if they are as different compared to maybe what we thought going into last year. So now I think we kind of have an idea that maybe they are more similar.”
“Instead of preparing for two offenses, which I think hurt us a little bit last year, we will try to make it so that everyone can do everything. And Brion has another year of experience which should really help him and he will be more familiar with what we are doing.”
Kollmorgen and Carnes were only sacked a total of 16 times last season, crediting a young but strong offensive line. The line will only lose one starter with all-conference honoree Dan Kruger graduating. Anchoring the offensive line this spring will be senior Jack Rummells, who started every game last season.
Joining Rummells will be senior Ryan Bingaman, who also saw some starts on the line for the Panthers. Rummells and Bingaman were part of the 2013 offensive line that finished the season in the top-30 in the FCS in tackles for loss allowed.
“The thing about the offensive line is we played some pretty young kids considering we had a redshirt freshman starting,” Salmon said. “Those kids will continue to get better. Having that experience and now knowing that they can do it will be a big benefit for us. We will lose Dan Kruger and we will miss Dan, but we have some young kids that can step in there. Jack is obviously our mainstay. He is as good of a player as we have had here.”
The Panthers will also return an experienced group of receivers to the offensive unit this spring, including junior Kevin Vereen Jr. and senior Chad Owens. Vereen was one of the most acrobatic wide receivers in the MVFC this past season, reaching out for several key one-handed catches to put UNI in scoring territory.
“Kevin did a great job last year,” Salmon said. “I have coached that position a few years with Kevin. He has worked hard to get where he is and now we kind of know what we have with him, which is a good thing. We will be able to use him more and put him in situations that will take advantage of opposing personnel.”
The junior finished with a team-leading 750 yards during the 2013 season after returning from an injury he suffered during the 2012 season. He averaged 14.4 yards per catch for four touchdowns on the season.
Owens started in 11 games at wide receiver last season for UNI, racking up 595 yards through the air. He led the receivers in touchdowns with five. Both Vereen and Owens were named to the 2013 MVFC all-conference team and will be leaders for a young group this spring.
“Chad has really worked hard,” Salmon said. “He has done really well, but those guys are seniors now and they need to step up. We need to develop someone behind them. We want to see some of the young kids like Jarred Edmonds, Xavier James and Markell Colemon along with Isaac Lintz and Kreston Caldwell because we need some depth at that position and they will get their chance.”
Along with an experienced group of players will come an knowledgeable group of coaches. Salmon, offensive line coach Rick Nelson and co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco have been at UNI a combined 67 years.
Salmon will enter his 28th year at UNI at the start of the 2014 season while Nelson will start his 25th. Verduzco joined the staff in 2001 after coaching at Rutgers from 1996-2000.
Salmon, who played quarterback for UNI from 1972-76, has been a part of every post-season game from 1975 to present at UNI as either a player, graduate assistant or coach. Nelson also played football for the Panthers from 1980-83, earning the “Oil Can Award” in 1983, given to the player showing ability, performance, attitude and leadership as a Panther.
Todd Blythe is the newest Panther offensive coach, taking the reins of the UNI wide receivers last season. He started at UNI in 2012 as the running backs coach after having a stellar career as a receiver at Iowa State from 2003-2007. He also saw time with the New Orleans Saints and the Iowa Barnstormers before finding his way to UNI.
Although the UNI offense has had a steady group of coaches, Salmon emphasized that they are always looking to add something new to their offensive scheme, and this spring will take a different approach to that side of the ball.
“Three of us have been here quite a while and throughout the years we have tried to change things and adapt to our personnel,” he said. “This spring we will take a step back and look at the big picture and see how we can make it so when the freshmen come in, they can understand it.
“It is easy for me, I have been involved in three or four different offenses since I have been here. Everybody copycats everybody in college football. So we have looked at that and started to go backwards and start over a little bit. We think we have some really talented kids coming in and we want to give them a chance to perform this year and help us.”
Most college football players were used to being the stars on their respective high school teams, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t go back to the basics to improve. One of the goals for the spring season for the offensive corps will be to focus on details to make themselves better as individuals and a group.
“The basic thing this spring for me will be technique work,” Salmon said. “It is not so much the plays you run, it’s the kids using the right technique to get things accomplished. We will do a lot of individual work that you don’t get to do as much of in the fall.”
The Panthers, who will kick-off their spring season this Friday, will also host their annual Spring Game presented by Tyson on Friday, April 25. The game will start at 6:30 p.m. with the voice of the Panthers, Gary Rima, hosting his hourly show prior to kick-off on the plaza.