UNI creating competition in defensive backfield
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Northern Iowa defensive backs Malcolm Washington (2), A.J. Allen, and Elijah Campbell (1). (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

by Cole Bair, UNI correspondent for The Gazette

CEDAR FALLS — On media day, it appeared the question marks in the Northern Iowa defensive backfield lied solely with their cornerbacks.

A week ago A.J. Allen and Elijah Campbell were all but set in stone to return to their starting positions at rover and free safety, respectively.

A lot can change in a week.

The uncertainty among the Panthers cornerbacks has provoked first-year defensive backs coach Jeff Burris to move the all-MVFC second teamer Campbell to cornerback in camp to get a glimpse of what he can bring to the position.

“We’re taking a look at Elijah Campbell,” Burris said. “He’s moved over and we’re taking a look to see what happens.

“The biggest thing about that position right now is to build some competition.”

The early returns on Campbell have been positive, according to Burris. But it remains to be seen if the senior will end up as more than a motivating factor for a group of young cornerbacks vying for a spot on the depth chart behind returning all-MVFC second teamer Malcolm Washington. And it’s a sizable group vying for those coveted No. 2 and No. 3 cornerback spots.

Xavior Williams is among those in the midst of the cornerback competition, and working to his advantage is his size at 6-foot-1 and a redshirt season a year ago that appears to be providing an edge over competition such as sophomore Nikholai Jaghai, fellow redshirt freshman Isaiah Nimmers and true freshmen Isaiah Trousil and Alphonso Soko.

“I was going with the 1’s, playing like a starter (last season), so I learned everything quick,” Williams said. “(The coaches) were practicing me like I was ready to play, but I redshirted.”

Historically the Panthers have preferred to put their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage to allow for scheme flexibility elsewhere within the defense. Williams said he thinks he’s at his best in man-to-man.

“If I could pick one, I want to play man (coverage),” Williams said.

Burris said that’s still the standard they’re working toward — being an effective man-to-man secondary — but there’s two different kinds of man-to-man coverage and the decision on what they’ll play most has yet to decided.

“There’s being able to play off-man and press-man (coverage),” Burris said. “I know in the past we’ve been more of a press-man football team. Right now we’re more of an off-man team.

“I think we have the capability to be a tremendous secondary when it comes to playing man. We’re putting the guys on an island at a consistent level and (the) competitive nature needs to come out. That’s why we’re creating that environment right here at the practice field.”

While Campbell and Williams appear to be the early favorites in the cornerback competition, the amount of change that’s happened in a week can only add motivation for the other young corners looking to take advantage of their opportunities.

“We’re taking a look at Isaiah Trousil. He definitely flashes,” Burris said. “Also, Alphonso Soko, he may or may not (redshirt). So we’ve got two guys in that capacity as far as (true) freshmen are concerned.”

With the opener against Iowa State only three weeks away, Burris admitted he’s already getting eager about his first game as a Northern Iowa assistant coach.

“I’m just trying to hold my emotions until that (game week) time frame comes.” he said. “It’s definitely getting exciting. But, again, we need this time, we need the developmental time."

“The technique overall has made a tremendous improvement. We’ve made it a point of emphasis over the past week. Next week it’ll be something completely different.”

Listen to 2017 UNI Football on the Home Of The Panthers, News/Talk 1540 KXEL. Follow @KXELPanthers on Twitter for the latest news, exclusive interviews and more.

  • Cole Bair handles sports for News/Talk 1540 KXEL, including sportscasts, co-hosting and producing 'On Press Row', contributing to high school football and college football and basketball programs, along with being the driving force behind HomeOfThePanthers.com. A graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, Bair is also an avid golfer and Chicago Cubs fan, and has an excellent rapport with both players and coaches.

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