31 Mar UNI Football: Absolute Adversity Creates Different Paths, Same Unbroken Bond
Panthers Don’t Panic
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
The Northern Iowa Football team encapsulated all the various decisions and paths that colleges, universities, and individuals were pressed into. Tracing back to last spring, fresh off a third-round FCS playoff appearance and 10-5 overall record, UNI had national title expectations firmly in their vision heading into the 2020 season. A veteran-laden team, the 2016 class of recruits could go down as arguably the most talented recruiting cycle in UNI Panther history. Specifically, four rising seniors, who adopted the program’s ideals and inherent expectations. With various backgrounds and obstacles along the way, each of Offensive Tackle Spencer Brown, Defensive End Elerson Smith, Tight End Briley Moore, and Defensive Back Xavior Williams ascended to near the top of their respected positions on the FCS level, setting a high bar for what the 2020 season could bring.
Everyone unfortunately knows what came next.
The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the globe, taking thousands of lives, and also threatened to put the sporting world on hold. Conferences across varying levels of college football were left to micromanage the state of their ability to put out a product, while adhering to the safety measurements necessary to keep their student-athletes safe. For many FCS teams, UNI Football alike, the severity of the pandemic outweighed their desire for a fall season. Like most programs on this level, the Panthers opted to push their season to the spring. Although that decision was ultimately the best for the full scope of the program and the student-athletes safety and health, it left several with an unfortunate decision to make.
These four athletes in particular, all of whom’s play will warrant professional football opportunities, were left to navigate the possibilities and their futures individually.
HIGHLY ACCLAIMED TIGHT END OPTS FOR BIG 12
Heading into the 2019 college football season, Tight End Briley Moore was set up for one more record-setting year for UNI Football, and eventually testing the waters professionally as part of the 2020 NFL Draft class. That plan was delayed during the team’s season-opening loss at the hands of the Iowa State Cyclones (29-26), when he sustained a shoulder injury. That obstacle pushed Moore to contemplate his future outlook, and the best course of action moving forward. He decided he would opt to return for his fifth season with the Panthers.
Out of the four members of the talented 2016 group, Briley Moore was the only member to see regular playing time during his true freshman year. Brown, Smith, and Williams were all redshirted in their initial seasons, thus maintaining eligibility through 2020. With the injury, Moore now entered the same classification, garnering an opportunity to end his career with the class that had been so instrumental in continuing the long and proud tradition for UNI Football. Pumped for the opportunity at hand, Briley had huge expectations for what that final campaign could look like. However, the aftermath of the pandemic cancellations once again forced Moore to evaluate his future plans. With the limited opportunity in 2019 before being injured, missing out on a second straight season of film was not in the equation for him. This unsettling time offered a chance to achieve an opportunity that had eluded him coming out of Blue Springs South High School in Missouri – the chance to play FBS football.
The next step to achieving that goal, the transfer portal.
“It was a hard decision because of the guys on this call and the rest of the teammates,” Moore recalled.
The first of many dominoes to fall, Briley Moore showed tremendous foresight in his decision, opting for the transfer before Northern Iowa’s season was officially suspended until the Spring. The timing was everything, and he capitalized on it.
“Once things got shut down I saw an opportunity to make one of my dreams come true and play at the Power Five level. Looking back, it was fortunate because there was no FCS season.”
Once officially entered in the transfer portal, things would begin heating up for the talented Tight End’s services. One school quickly separated itself during the process, not only allowing Briley to live out his FBS and Power Five dreams, but also offered the opportunity to be closer to his family. Just two hours west of his hometown in Blue Springs, Missouri, the Kansas State Wildcats led by Head Coach Chris Kleiman came calling. It didn’t hurt that Coach Kleiman had had a first-hand introduction to Briley during his time coaching in the Missouri Valley Conference while at North Dakota State. Once the Wildcats made the offer, it became a no-brainer for Moore; an opportunity that he made the most of in his lone season.
Donning the #0 for the purple and white, Moore would leave Manhattan, Kansas as a second-team All-Big 12 honoree in his long season. He posted 338 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 22 receptions in just nine games for the Wildcats. With the added attention of playing in front of Big 12 evaluators, Moore was provided an opportunity to get in front of NFL evaluators and leave a positive final impression heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. With some pandemic induced limitations to the draft process, Moore chose to test his talents at the College Gridiron Showcase (CGS) to again get in front of the eyes of NFL scouts and decision-makers.
“It was a good experience. I had gotten invites from others like the NFLPA Bowl and East-West Shrine. Once they canceled the Combine I wanted to get down there and interview with scouts.”
Presented with a variety of hurdles during his final two years, Moore did everything in his control to chase the ultimate dream: play professional football. Moore mentioned about twenty teams that he had met with down at CGS, citing positive feedback and interactions overall. Now becomes the waiting game for Moore until April finally comes around. Putting his best foot forward, all that is left is meetings with teams to try to continue to impress. If Briley Moore has taught us anything over the last couple of years, it’s that his perseverance should not be in question.
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‘DIDN’T WANT TO BE WHERE I WASN’T WANTED’
Perhaps the most physically gifted of the 2016 recruiting class, Offensive Tackle Spencer Brown has had evaluators buzzing dating back to the spring-summer evaluation period. Blessed with a prototypical NFL frame for an Offensive Tackle at 6’8 ½” and 314 pounds, Brown is a physical marvel that has offensive line coaches dreaming about what the future can hold.
A three-year starter for the team heading into the 2020 season, a lot was expected from Brown, especially after being featured on Bruce Feldman’s “Freak List” as one of the 50 most talented athletes in all of college football.
The career arc of Spencer Brown has been highly publicized at this point. From a Lenox, Iowa Tight End/Defensive End playing eight-man football, to Senior Bowl offensive tackle and potential top three round selection, Spencer has put on nearly 100 pounds since showing up on campus. Giving a large amount of credit to the Panthers’ strength and conditioning staff, as well as the “jungle juice” (not the type you would usually associate with college life), Spencer stakes claim as possessing potentially the largest upside of any offensive lineman in this year’s class. He started the first five games in 2017, before suffering a season-ending MCL and patellar tendon injury. After the setback, Spencer would start the final 27 games of his career with UNI Football. With various preseason accolades, much was expected from the star right tackle in 2020.
Like the rest of the crew, those expectations were met with decisions. After the season was officially delayed until Spring, Brown was left with a massive one, as his options were more limited with his NFL future hanging in the balance. Heading back to school, playing in the summer, and pushing to the 2022 NFL Draft did not logistically make much sense. No, the options were laid on the table: 1.) Go the transfer route, answer the “level of competition” concern and continue on the 2021 NFL Draft track, or 2.) Completely bypass the season and begin preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft process and hope for an All-Star game opportunity.
Brown would ultimately choose the latter, and betting on himself has been paying off til this point.
“I had a lot of conversations about moving on. A lot of teams were already underway and it would have been an awkward situation,” Brown explained. “Then, going into a situation where you didn’t know anyone. The best decision was not to play somewhere else.”
He would receive his 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl invite early on in his training, solidifying his sound decision to prepare for the next level.
A blessing in disguise, the inopportune situation provided Brown with the chance to train with one of the best Offensive Tackles in recent memory, former San Francisco 49ers great Joe Staley. Training with Staley, Brown was also offered the opportunity to train side by side with former North Dakota State All American Dillon Radunz, another notable 2021 NFL Draft prospect. Testing his skills alongside another one of the FCS elite, Brown had eyes fully set on his performance in Mobile, where he would be matching up with some of the top seniors in the nation.
“I didn’t know what to expect down in Mobile, but Joe Staley gave me a ton of advice. You can sit there and hit bags for hours, but hitting real humans is where it’s at. Knocked some rust off day one and then got acclimated to the situation.”
After struggling through the first day of practice, Brown put on a show during the final two days of practice, again showcasing his tantalizing combination of size and athleticism. It remains a little bit of a question mark how NFL evaluators will value an FCS prospect with no film in the 2020 season. For a position like offensive tackle, where traits are so important, a selection somewhere in the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft seems increasingly likely. Either way, Brown’s journey is one that should be continuously revered. Betting on a player like Spencer will be easy after seeing how much he has already bet on himself.
DYNAMIC DEFENSIVE BACK STAYS HOME
Perhaps the most under-appreciated, yet arguably most accomplished player of the quartet, Defensive Back Xavior Williams had been a standout for the Panthers since his redshirt freshman season. A three-time All Missouri Valley selection, “X” pulled down a variety of accolades as the consistent playmaker on the backend for arguably the most dominant defense on the FCS level. Posting nine interceptions and 24 pass breakups during his three seasons as a starter, Williams was also selected as a Freshman and Sophomore All-American in each of his first two seasons of substantial playing time.
He has seen experience at both outside Cornerback and inside at Safety, highlighting the caliber of cover man who can assume a variety of roles on the backend. Dating back to his career at Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Iowa, Williams put his athletic prowess on full display. On top of being a record holder on the gridiron on both offense and defense, Williams was also a standout track and field athlete, highlighted by an absurd 7’ high jump and 23’8.25” personal best in the long jump. Excelling on the track, Williams would also develop into a two-sport star at Northern Iowa. There was a good argument that Williams could have staked a claim as the top overall athlete on the Panthers roster.
After the shutdown was set in stone, the situation pressed Williams into making his own decision. Yet again, a completely different path was forged. Similarly to Briley Moore, Williams ultimately choose the transfer portal.
As you can imagine, interest was again high in his case. The difference between Xavior and Briley’s situation, Williams opted to make it a much slower process to set himself up for winter workouts, a full spring practice, and a fall schedule at his new destination. Briley did, however, contribute heavily to Xavior’s ability to navigate the portal to the best of his ability.
“North Carolina State and Kansas State and Iowa were interested. I stayed in touch with Briley and he was super helpful.”
Despite some high interest from some outstanding institutions and programs, Williams always had his top choice in mind. Staying in his home state was always a goal.
“I told (Briley) if Iowa offers it was going to be the choice. What they did in the Big Ten was amazing,” Williams said. “I knew where I wanted to go the whole time. I was just waiting for them to make the move.”
Obviously, with this decision, Williams’ NFL future was put momentarily on hold. Unlike his three classmates, his college career would continue next fall, giving him an opportunity for a massive rise as part of the Hawkeyes program. Already on campus in Iowa City, Williams is enjoying his time so far with his new program.
“I’ve been here since January and we’re doing winter workouts. I love it here, so it’s been really good so far.”
Playing between multiple positions for UNI Football, Williams will begin his career on the outside at cornerback working to find his best fit. With a nice season in 2021, Williams has the chance to alleviate the dreaded level of competition concerns as Briley did during his lone season at Kansas State. Xavior heads into the 2022 NFL Draft cycle as one of the more versatile prospects in the defensive secondary. Stereotyped by the small school label, Williams is an outstanding athlete who intends to prove that he can play with anyone on any level.
TO PORTAL OR NOT TO PORTAL?
Spencer Brown wasn’t the only modest recruit to experience a massive physical change during his UNI career. All American Defensive End Elerson Smith landed in Cedar Falls weighing right around 200 pounds soaking wet, resembling much closer to a basketball player than a future NFL defensive lineman.
Unlike the other three in his class, Smith took a while to assert a role in the UNI Football program. During his first two seasons, he did not see the field for the Panthers. In a 2018 redshirt sophomore season, Smith carved out a niche as a situational pass rusher. He would finish second on the team with 7.5 quarterback sacks, setting the table for what would become a 2019 season to remember. Chosen as a unanimous All American selection, Smith elevated to become arguably the top defensive player on the FCS level, recording 21.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, five forced fumbles, 14 quarterback hurries, and two blocked kicks, on top of his 63 total tackles. That season put him firmly on the NFL radar, with a possible Day Two rise if he was able to replicate his performance during the 2020 season. Playing the majority of the 2019 season weighing in the 240′s, Smith added a substantial amount of weight this past offseason, getting ready for the challenges ahead. The cancellation of the season threatened to stall the momentum that he had been building over the last few campaigns.
It isn’t hard to get excited over a player like Elerson. Blessed with size and extreme athleticism, he certainly looks the part of a next-level impact player. His path towards making sense of an uncertain situation mirrored that of Spencer’s but with an added layer to the decision
“In the spur of the moment, I thought the portal was the best decision for me,” Smith detailed. “Then once the FCS postponed their season I decided to not transition to a new situation.”
Now we’ve heard vastly different stories from the Transfer Portal, both negative and positive. While not a negative conversation, the communication sounded to get really chaotic very quickly for Smith.
“My phone was really hot and once I got to talk to coaches, it got to the point where it was what scheme do you run and where do I fit, which was really cool.”
Eventually opting to bypass the transfer process and enter the 2021 NFL Draft, Elerson Smith’s NFL Draft story began earlier than anticipated.
Unlike Brown, his Senior Bowl dreams were a little more delayed. After playing the waiting game, Smith eventually did receive that prestigious invitation, an opportunity to work against some of the nation’s elite.
“Mobile was a lot of fun and I was able to just sit back and compete. I didn’t know where my game was at, but I got to see it,” Elerson commented. “Once I got the nerves out it went well. “
Smith’s Senior Bowl performance was a revelation of sorts, displaying all of his raw ability and upside, while quieting a lot of the concerns he faced entering the week. Everyone knew he was a talented edge defender who has some insane length and twitch, but the rush ability he was able to show off working on the interior was a game-changer. Smith cited his versatility as among his biggest selling points to NFL evaluators. There isn’t an NFL team who couldn’t use a versatile piece like Elerson Smith.
“I can play anywhere, inside and out, special teams. It doesn’t matter. I’ll do it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic pressed us all into some unfortunate situations, some much worse than others. For the sports world, the virus threatened to completely change the landscape of both collegiate and professional sports. Smaller schools, such as Northern Iowa, facing the sheer task of following proper protocol to ensure safety was too much to justify financially. This forced a large number of student-athletes to make quick decisions with future-altering implications. For the Northern Iowa quartet, they were pressed into these decisions in the blink of an eye. For each player, the road was not always clear. Challenges persisted even after the Twitter post was live. Despite being at the same program, in similar situations, and with likeminded career aspirations, each took a different path to get where they are now.
Although their careers did not end the way they planned, each has come out on the other side with the ability to write fantastic new chapters. Careers in the NFL are imminent, but for now, these four emulate everything that is great about Northern Iowa. This group has defied odds all while chasing the ultimate dream. Taking everything from a macro view for a second, the 2016 recruiting class was truly remarkable for the Panthers. Littered with under-recruited talents, some without even a single star designation to their name, this group has shaped the future of UNI Football for the better. To think that four players from a single class have the opportunity to play on the NFL stage, speaks to the level of talent existing in their value. For Spencer Brown, Elerson Smith, Xavior Williams, and Briley Moore, each has their own story, but all have created an unbroken bond that goes much deeper than the action we see every Saturday and Sunday.
An NFL Draft Analyst with extensive credits to his name, Ryan has joined XTB for a special edition series covering the next wave of prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft. Ryan is a former member of the Sports Illustrated affiliated Draft Bible, where his work has been featured on SINow and Bleacher Report. Ryan also co-hosts the NFL Prospects Podcast.