CEDAR FALLS - When you talk with members of the Northern Iowa football team, one of the first things out of their collective mouths is their desire to rebound from a disappointing 2012 campaign.
The Panthers were ranked in the preseason top 10 last year but finished 5-6. And no one - from coach Mark Farley to starting sophomore quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen - is happy about it.
The Panthers have too much pride to let that happen again. And Kollmorgen, along with other playmakers on offense, will do everything they can to turn things back around.
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
Northern Iowa head football coach Mark Farley responds to a question during the Panthers’ media day event Wednesday at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. Farley and his team are looking to prove their mettle this season after falling short of lofty expectations last fall with a 5-6 record.
"We have a lot to prove after what happened last year," Kollmorgen said. "We appreciate the ranking, but that is based on tradition more than anything. This program has a lot to prove. We need to prove that we deserve the ranking. I want us to get to No. 1. Hopefully we can get there."
Northern Iowa begins the 2013 season ranked anywhere from No. 12 to No. 16 in the preseason national polls. But those polls also have the Panthers slated to finish fourth in their own league - the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
"If you question a UNI player about whether or not they belong in the polls, there is an irritation factor there," Farley said. "You can say you're No. 12 or No. 16 in the country, but right now we are the fourth best team in our league. And you can't see December when you're No. 4 in your own league. We have to prove to ourselves that we do belong."
The non-conference schedule lightens up a little this season but the Panthers still have to travel to Iowa State and will play the three teams picked to finish ahead of them - No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 7 South Dakota State and No. 10 Illinois State - all on the road.
"We had 85 of our 95 student-athletes stay here all summer and for a school like ours, that is outstanding," Farley said. "It is a tribute to our athletic department, but it also is attributed to us going 5-6 last year. There is a lot of pride in this program. We need to prove that we can get back to the top of our league."
The offense returns a ton of playmakers.
Kollmorgen was the freshman and newcomer of the year in the MVFC last year after averaging 228 yards per game through the air. He also tossed a MVFC-best 21 touchdowns, while junior running back David Johnson rushed for 1,021 yards and 13 touchdowns.
UNI also brings back several experienced players at receiver, including Chad Owens (461 receiving yards), Brett LaMaster (31 catches, 601 yards, five TDs), Wes Smith and Sam Wright at wideout and sophomore Sam Rohr (202 yards, two TDs) is a returning starter at tight end.
"I think we have the most depth at wide receiver than we have ever had before," Farley said. "We ran out of receivers and linebackers last year because of injuries. We have 11-15 wideouts and 15 defensive backs and 12 linebackers so I don't think we will run out this year."
As good as the skill positions are, UNI's offensive line is a work in progress after graduating several players off last year's squad.
The best lineman of the bunch is without question senior Dan Kruger, who is a four-year starter and one of the team captains. Junior Jack Rummells also is a returning starter, but the rest of the bunch that includes redshirt freshman Robert Rathje, senior Mark Blessington and redshirt freshman Trevor Hansen won't have a lot of collegiate experience.
"The line is a work in progress for sure," Farley said. "We can't really talk about how good Johnson can be until the offensive line gets things figured out."
Even though the offensive line is full of questions, Johnson feels like the pieces are there for the offense to make plays.
"The young guys are good," said Johnson in reference to the offensive line. "With the new guys coming in, and the old guys coming back, I think we have a chance with this line to do some good things."
Leading the defense will be two returning starters at linebacker in Jake Farley and Jordan Gacke. Those two combined for 164 tackles a year ago. The unit gets much deeper this year though because Sam Tim and Zach Cutkomp return from serious injuries. Max Busher also is expected to compete for playing time in the middle of the Panther defense.
"We use (last year) as motivation. We had a chip on our shoulder the whole offseason," said Jake Farley, who spent two seasons at Kansas before transferring to UNI to play for his dad. "I personally felt like we disappointed some people who have been supporting us for a long time. We want this dome full, and we want to win games for the fans that support us."
The defensive line returns three starters - Chris Jepsen, Mac O'Brien and Xavier Williams - who combined for 91 tackles in 2012.
O'Brien's season is in question after he broke his foot. He is not expected to miss the entire year, but Farley did say offensive linemen Ben Wallace (torn ACL) and Kevin Carroll (shoulder) will not play in 2013 due to serious injuries.
"That is part of football," Farley said. "It is unfortunate for them, but we have all of camp to fix those holes and that is why we will be OK."
A solid and experienced front seven should help make up for a secondary that lost three of the four starters. The lone returning starter is Diondre Hall. The rest of the group is young but Edwin Young and Jalen Barnes did see some action last season. Newcomers Tate Omli, Makinton Dorleant and Joe Feldpaush also will compete for snaps.
"We replace the entire secondary," said Jake Farley. "The young guys are picking things up really fast. I think we'll be just fine. I am not concerned with it at all."
The ultimate goal for this year's team is to improve daily. Getting back to the top of the conference will take some work, but former South Tama County Trojan Sam Kuhter likes what he sees so far in camp.
"It seems like everyone is working real hard. UNI is not used to having years like that, so the guys want to do whatever it takes to get back to where we've been before," said Kuhter, who is one of two guys fighting for the starting punter position. "That is the motivation. We need to win the conference again."