CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Play hard. Play smart. Play fast.
Those three phrases are written on the playbooks of each University of Northern Iowa football player.
Saturday, following a 3-hour, 15-minute practice that featured a mostly live 65-play scrimmage, the Panthers met at least two of those goals.
“I thought we played hard,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “I thought we played smart, and smart is the hardest one to get. That was most pleasing. We were very smart today, we just weren’t very fast because we were thinking too much.
“But that is part of the game and you have to be able to put it all together and play faster.”
Based on his initial observations, Farley said what he and his staff saw Saturday combined with Thursday and Friday practice sessions will shuffle the depth chart a bit.
“I think we found out a lot about our football team and found out a lot about the work that still needs to be done,” Farley said. “People have earned their way to a higher role, and now it’s let them take that and see what becomes of it. And it will be for somebody who maybe needs to pick up his game and see how he takes on the challenge if he has gone down on that depth chart.”
One big question was the quarterback play. All four — Jacob Keller, Will McElvain, Nate Martens and Justin Fomby — got reps, with Keller and McElvain getting the most action.
Both players threw interceptions and both threw touchdowns passes, with Keller also rushing for a score.
“I think head-to-head, just looking at it, Keller came out slow,” Farley said. “The positive for him is he regrouped and finished very well. McElvain came out a little more consistent start to finish.
“Again it was the first scrimmage with multiple reps and the first play has to be as good as the last play. You can’t start slow. It is something Keller can learn from and it is something everyone can learn from.”
Farley was quick to add that both Martens and Fomby have shown they belong.
“I was pleased with the freshmen,” Farley added. “Are they still in the hunt? I’d say, based on what I saw today, they are still in the hunt.”
Farley said he will name a starter a week before the Panthers open at Iowa State. He wants to see more consistency over a bigger body of work which means the next six practices will put him and his offensive staff closer to a decision.
TRUE FRESHMEN SHOWING UP: Three true freshmen have shown enough early that if UNI were to open its season tomorrow they’d find roles on the field.
The big standout Saturday was defensive back Omar Brown of Minneapolis. The 6-foot, 195-pound Brown, who played at Minneapolis North, had a pair of interceptions during the scrimmage, returning one for a touchdown, and at least one other pass break-up while running with the No. 2 defense and playing behind junior college transfer Micah Mayberry at right corner.
Additionally, 6-foot-3, 243-pound tight end Maverick Gatrost of Center Point, and 6-foot, 215-pound running back Nick McCabe of Caledonia, Minn., who spent the summer with the University of Minnesota football squad before landing in Cedar Falls, also have opened the eyes of UNI’s staff.
“Omar has had a good camp,” Farley said. “McCabe and Maverick also have had good camps. Those are the ones just after the last three days. They are staying with the older guys. That is not to say more won’t come along, but they’ve gotten caught up in the mental part of it, but those three have probably had more opportunities and shown a little more consistency.”
NEXT MAN IN: Preseason All-America tight end Briley Moore has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury. The Panthers are also without projected third-stringer Jayden Scott, out with an undisclosed injury.
That has allowed back-up Tristan Bohr to take a leading role on the offense and given Gatrost a chance.
“Having Briley get a hamstring injury was probably the best thing that happened to our offense and our offensive coaches,” Farley said. “They’ve had to learn to play without him. We are going to get Briley back soon, but it strengthens our team because Tristan and Maverick had to take leading roles.”
GRAHAM BACK AT RECEIVER: Senior Aaron Graham, who all spring played at running back where he starred in high school, has taken the bulk of his camp reps at wide receiver.
With the Panthers having good depth at running back with senior Trevor Allen, sophomore Alphonso Soko, sophomore Tyler Hoosman and the emergence of McCabe, the offensive staff wants to get Graham and his playmaking abilities on the field as much as possible.
“I saw Aaron as a tailback in the spring, and I saw him as a tailback in the first week, but I needed to see him more,” Farley said. “Being we only play with one running back, it was, ‘Let’s get more reps to him and play him somewhere else and see where we can use him, not just as a running back.’
“It’s just getting him on the field. This is about getting our best 11 on the field. He is a senior that has talent.”