CEDAR FALLS — Spencer Brown has become a master at coming back from injuries, so a swollen right hand from a blocking drill on Monday doesn’t figure to hold back his progress as an offensive tackle for the Northern Iowa Panthers.
At Wednesday’s media day, head coach Mark Farley and Brown both predicted Brown would return to the practice field in the coming days in preparation for the Sept. 1 season opener at Montana. Currently, Brown (6-8, 305-pound redshirt sophomore) and senior Tyler Putney (6-6, 302) are considered co-starters at right tackle.
The leader of the offensive line, senior Cal Twait (6-5, 305) of Northwest Webster, mans the left tackle position.
“I was with the starters when I hurt my hand,” Brown said prior to Wednesday’s practice. “The hand is just a little bruised. It will be all right. Once the swelling goes down I’ll be ready to rock and roll.”
Brown, familiar with injuries throughout his Lenox High School athletic career, started the first five games of the 2017 season for the Panthers in his transition from tight end to tackle. However, he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament and damage to his patellar tendon in his right knee during Northern Iowa’s 38-29 homecoming loss to Western Illinois on Oct. 7.
Brown, who had dealt with left knee injuries in high school, missed spring practice during the recovery process. He was able to participate in summer lifting and conditioning drills and added 10 pounds of lean muscle for his new position, and began fall camp at full speed.
At his press conference Wednesday, Farley mentioned how far Brown has come from being a tight end/defensive end in Iowa 8-player football. He sees no dropoff in Brown’s athleticism coming off last year’s knee issue.
“Spencer beat up his hand a little bit the other day, but he’ll be back,” Farley said. “He’s still just learning the (offensive line) game, and only a couple years out from being 6-8 and 220 pounds. He’s taken on the role of being an offensive lineman wholeheartedly. He’s going to play. He has a lot of upside.”
Brown is excited to learn under new offensive line coach Ryan Clanton, who replaces Mike Simmonds, now at UTEP. Clanton was offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Ventura College for four seasons prior to his hire at UNI. He was part of a BCS national runner-up team at Oregon and was invited to NFL training camps with the Buccaneers and Packers before starting his coaching career.
“Coach Clanton brought in some stuff with Oregon, some new techniques and drills with footwork,” Brown said. “He has some things he learned in the NFL mini-camps, with teammates like Kyle Long. We watched some NFL tape together. He definitely knows what he’s talking about. It’s fun to learn from him.”
Twait is the veteran leader of the offensive line at left tackle, and has high praise for Brown’s desire to improve his skills.
“Spencer is very dedicated,” Twait said. “I really like him because as an older guy who’s been around a couple more years than he has, Spencer really takes it well if I give him a tip on a play. You’ll see him trying it the next time. He takes coaching really well and he’s a fun guy to hang out with.”
Clanton said Brown was already a natural run blocker from his tight end days, but it’s protecting senior quarterback Eli Dunne of Grinnell where he’s making the most progress as an offensive tackle.
“Pass protection is the toughest thing to learn,” Clanton said. “It’s such an unnatural motion going backwards and staying on the inside half of the (opponent’s) body. Knowing when to be aggressive, how to change your set-up, that’s where experience comes into play. Spencer has the attitude we want in our offensive linemen, and he’s athletic like some of the guys I was with in the NFL. Nowadays, you see offensive linemen kind of leaning out and remaining agile as those guys on the (defensive) edge are getting faster.”
Brown senses a more determined mindset in fall camp this year to atone for what many felt was a disappointing end to the 2017 campaign. While the final record was improved from 2016 at 8-5, and second in the Missouri Valley Conference at 6-2, the Panthers lost to fellow MVC foe South Dakota State in the second round of the FCS playoffs after gaining that postseason berth with a 5-1 record down the stretch of the regular season.
“A lot of guys were upset that we lost in the second round to a team that we beat in the regular season,” Brown said. “From winter conditioning all the way through to now, it’s been a huge mindset to be better. Our main goal is to win the league. It’s been a drought for about seven years now, but I think we have the team to do it.”
The No. 13 Panthers open on the road at Montana and at Iowa (Sept. 15) before hosting Hampton on Sept. 22. The league schedule starts at Indiana State on Sept. 27, followed by a home game against top-ranked North Dakota State on Oct. 6. Another big league matchup is the Oct. 20 homecoming game against third-ranked South Dakota State. Other ranked teams on the UNI schedule are No. 21 Illinois State, No. 24 Montana and No. 25 Youngstown State. South Dakota, coming off an 8-5 campaign, received votes in the preseason poll.
“It’s a tough schedule, but we’re looking forward to it,” Brown said. “Last year was kind of like going from bad (5-6) to good (8-5). This year we’re going from good to great. That’s the mindset.”