Northern Iowa defensive lineman Elerson Smith

2021 NFL Draft: The Northern Iowa Panthers are Ready to Crash the Party

  • 2021 NFL Draft
  • Northern Iowa
By RiseNDraft March 24, 2020 0 Comment

The 2016 recruiting class for Northern Iowa was special and now have their eyes on the national championship. Several of those players have NFL potential.

Optimism was at an all-time high around the Northern Iowa football program heading into the 2016 regular season. With a third-round playoff berth the year prior, the Panthers had taken the eventual national champion North Dakota State down to the wire and brink of an upset. 

As senior placekicker Michael Schmadeke cut the contest to a one-score game 21-13 halfway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers offered themselves late to be in position for the upset. A safety recorded by the Bison with just north over two minutes remaining would ultimately seal the contest. Northern Iowa would fall by a final score of 23-13, which marked the Bison’s second-fewest points scored during the entire 2015 season. 

Teams never want to use losses as moral victories… but going toe to toe with one of the prominent dynasties in sports over the last decade is nothing to turn your nose at. With returning talent, combined with a notable 2016 recruiting class (that we will get into soon), the possibilities for what was ahead was notable. 

The 2016 season would ultimately not live up to the high expectations for the Panthers. They would finish the campaign with a 5-6 record, failing to qualify for the FCS playoffs as they did the year prior. Lost in the frustration of an underwhelming season, that 2016 class would be presented with the first opportunity for development, setting the stage for what the future would hold. 

Now one player, in particular, would be presented with an opportunity for on-field experience early on in his career (more about him in a bit). As for the rest, they were relegated to the sideline as observers in 2016. As you will see, that year was a massive moment for most of the class. 

A pretty common trend across the FCS landscape, programs take on high upside athletes who may need some early cultivation before being presented with an early role for their team. Plus, preserving that year of eligibility can be huge for the optimal future outlook. That has proven to be huge for the Panthers program specifically in recent years. 

Throughout the next two seasons, Northern Iowa would experience a high level of success while sprinkling in the evolving talents of the 2016 class. Those two seasons included two berths into the FCS Playoffs, with an 8-5 and 7-6 final records, respectively. 

Although those seasons undoubtedly sat with much higher expectations, we saw flashes of what 2019 would bring. A part of that season,  the Panthers again found themselves in the mix of a deep FCS playoff run. With a 10-5 record, the team managed to collect their first double-digit win season Since 2011. A part of that run, the team was able to knock off South Dakota State in the second round of the playoffs by a score of 13 to 10. even more impressive when you consider the fact that earlier in the season they were defeated by that same team by a 38 to 7 result. 

As you can imagine, this was a massive moment for The team on their quest towards a national championship. A journey that would, unfortunately, end the next week, as they faced eventual National Champion runner-up James Madison University. 

The difference between what this team accomplished and what they did in 2015, is that this team was not a veteran one whose window was left open for a brief time.  No, this team was one that was made up of mostly redshirt and true juniors in the core of their success. 

A class that is ready for a breakthrough 2020 season, with even higher expectations for what they can potentially succeed in their last go around together. It is the Championship or nothing for 2020. All else is just secondary goals. 

So what just makes this 2016 recruiting class so special, you ask? It is not only the talent; they have that in spades. It is the relationships and quality of people that they have become over the years. Together now for five seasons, these young men have transformed from developmental high schoolers to valuable contributors to All-Americans… and soon to be highly coveted 2021 NFL Draft prospects.

So let’s take a stroll down memory lane. I’m bringing you back to 2016, where just how great these players would be was pretty evident at an early stage. 

Headliners of the 2016 Recruiting Class

Briley Moore

Heading into his senior season in 2019, two-time All-MVC tight end Briley Moore was an early favorite to become the small school tight end everyone should know across the draft community. Goals were set. Optimism was high. After two fantastic seasons, returning as the team’s unquestioned top target in the passing game, just how great of a note Briley would leave the program was the last remaining question to answer. 

That answer was put on hold during their season-opening matchup against in-state FBS foe Iowa State. In the team’s 29-26 opening game defeat, Moore was lost for the remainder of the 2019 season with a shoulder injury after beginning the game strong with four receptions for 26 yards against the Cyclones. 

“I fractured two bones in my shoulder socket,” Moore explained. 

With the rest of a noteworthy 2019 season lost, determining the severity of the injury and long term outlook was what concerned Briley to help determine his next step.

“They determined I didn’t need surgery after taking X-rays,” Briley said. “I was in a sling for six weeks. Since then, it has been about rest and getting my range of motion back.”

With the rehab process ahead and redshirt opportunity available, it was a no brainer for Briley to make his return in 2020 and end his stellar career the right way. 

“I’m excited to be back. When seeing the team we have coming back, it made a difficult decision a whole lot easier for me.”

Of course, Briley was the aforementioned player who received playing time in his true freshman season with the Panthers. Originally coming out of Blue Springs South High School in Missouri, Moore’s experience as a pass receiver paid off big time to him working towards early playing time. His ability was too much to keep off the field, profiling as an outlier for what has commonly sat as a gestation period for these UNI recruits. 

You don’t often see 6’4” 230-pound freshman tight ends show up on campus at FCS programs often, fitting the physical profile for early contribution. A listed size that Briley would debunk during our conversation together. 

“230 was very generous. I showed up on campus as a 215-pound wide receiver. I would say I played my freshman year around the 220-225 range.” 

Substantial physical growth has occurred big time since then, looking every bit the future NFL tight end.  “Now I am sitting at about 250 pounds. This weight has allowed me to really add a higher level of physicality to my game.” 

His contributions are easily measured in the passing game. Over his two All-MVC years in 2017 and 2018, Moore would record 77 receptions for 1,030 yards and four touchdowns. He is a mismatch weapon that is difficult for defensive players to counteract in coverage. For smaller defensive backs, his size and length cause a ton of problems. 

So let’s put a linebacker or bigger safety on him… that’ll work, right? That is assuming that Moore is just an average athlete, which he is not. There is a nuance to his route running with a smoothness that reminds you slightly of Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl tight end Zack Ertz. 

You can quantify how much a player like Briley Moore affects the passing game. The big addition to his game, however, is his big-time development in the run game. 

“We put on our hard hats every day in the trenches. I take pride in my work in the run game.”

When speaking with several of his teammates, his work in the run game was among the first thing out of their mouths. This is not a one-trick pony who offers little as a dual-threat tight end. You are looking at one of the more well-rounded players at his position in the country. 

As you can imagine, watching from the sideline while rehabbing was tough at times for Briley. I expected personally to hear more frustration when posed with this question. As always, Briley’s character and belief stuck out in an adverse situation. 

“Being on the sideline, I was so proud of the team and what we accomplished. We had a next man up mentality and attacked every day accordingly.” 

Having his leadership back in 2020 will be paramount for a Northern Iowa team who should begin the polls as a top-five team, with national championship aspirations firmly in their minds. Through the loss of Briley, one player more than most is ecstatic to get him back, redshirt junior signal-caller Will McElvain. 

“It’s great having Briley back. He is a great football player, a role model, and an outstanding leader.” 

As the excitement heightened as Will candidly spoke about his optimism for next season, getting his top tight end and potential All-American target was an obvious boost to the optimism. “We were hoping he had a chance to come back and end his career the way he wanted.”

A storybook ending feels like it could be firmly in Briley’s future. With a plethora of next-level talent returning, optimism is an all-time high for the Panthers… and rightfully so. As a seasoned veteran and most accomplished player on the roster heading into 2020, Briley is someone that the offense and entire team will be depending on. 

“Briley is going to be the glue for the offense this year,” former Panther and 2020 NFL Draft prospect Jackson Scott-Brown said. “He brings something to both the receiver position, with him being an incredible mismatch to anyone he goes against, as well as a fierce run blocker, which we missed a lot from him last year.” 

With the 2020 season being his last in a Panthers uniform, one thing is for certain, you can expect the best from Moore every Saturday this fall. Briley is aware, excited for the opportunity and ready to capitalize. 

Scott-Brown added, “He will be playing with his hair on fire, and I hope the best for him.”

While Briley is a team-first player, he will be playing for something even more than just his teammates, coaches and himself this season. No, his final campaign will have a new Moore to help contribute to the joy, successes, and making of memories. With the birth of his son this offseason, Briley has another person to make proud… another person to make proud.

“Being a father is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Every time I look at him, he makes me a better person.” 

With time flying by, it is now or never for the conclusion of Moore’s career. There is no cap to Briley’s expectations. His son has provided him additional reassurance that nothing is impossible. While he is a noted role model to the rest of his teammates, Briley is more than aware that the team role model has taken on a completely different meaning for him. 

“I want to be a superhero to him and for him to know that anything is possible.”

The goals have never been higher for the Panthers program. For the 2016 group, they had a pretty good idea early on that these types of accomplishments could be in store. It is not often you get this type of talent from one recruiting class at the FCS level. Call it a fluke. Call it an outlier. I’ll just call it a class to remember. 

“I knew on signing day of 2016 that we had something special here, especially when we came into Spring ball together.”

Spencer Brown

Perhaps the most dramatic physical transformation of the group, starting right tackle Spencer Brown is a long way away from the eight-man football he had once played three and a half hours southwest at Lenox High School.

Looking at Spencer now, all 6’9” and 321 pounds of him, you may be surprised to learn just how foreign the offensive line was to him until he got on campus in Cedar Falls. 

Let me take you back to the 2016 Northern Iowa roster, where a young Spencer Brown was sporting the #90 while being listed at sleek 6’8” and 238 pounds. As you may imagine, Spencer has been eating very well since then.

“They had me at 238? Yeah, that was a little exaggerated. I may have been 220 pounds when I first got here.” 

After being recruited as a tight end, the overarching question was where Brown’s best fit would ultimately lie. His athletic profile would pay off dividends to whichever position he would ultimately land at. His length, quick feet, ability to put on added weight made his future destination and eventually obvious one. 

The offensive tackle position was calling his name!

“Coming in as a tight end, I was confident in how I moved. Some things were easier than others,” Brown explained. 

During his transition, there were obvious learning curves for Brown playing a position he had never played before. Somethings, of course, would be easier hurdles than others. “Pass blocking was pretty natural for me.”

His surprisingly quick feet would be a huge asset early on in the passing game. For a player his size, it creates some huge headaches for opposing defensive lineman who is attempting to win around the track. Couple that with his foot quickness and it is nearly impossible to beat Brown when he is able to win inside, or run defenders past the pocket. 

The next step was to win a battle with a lack of natural leverage. Run blocking was not completely foreign to Spencer with his tight end background but he was aware early that it was something he would need to work on big time. That hard work has paid dividends so far. 

“I have improved big time in the run game. My game in that department from 2018 until now has been a huge leap.”

Now when we paint the picture of an athletic offensive lineman, many do not let their minds wander. Those guys just push people around right? That false narrative is one that must be put to bed. When asked about when he knew the 2016 recruiting class was special, Spencer reminisced about how they used to spend their spare time during camp. 

“We used to play pickup basketball when we were freshmen. Games were a real eye-opener. We have some crazy athletes in the class.” 

Slightly modest, from the sounds of it, Spencer was not lacking in the athleticism department during those contests.

“I’ll give it to him. He had 42 points and 41 rebounds in one game in high school. Spencer can play,” Briley chuckled. 

After being selected as an All-MVC Second Team selection in 2019, we all can expect Brown to receive some even higher accolades during the 2020 college football season. They simply don’t make offensive tackles that look like this often. You see the natural gifts when you watch him play. You see the length. You see the size. You see easy movement skills. What can’t quite be as easily quantitative is the amount of work that Spencer puts in on a day to day basis. 

“When you watch him work, you instantly know that he is probably the hardest worker on the field,” McElvein said. “Spencer is a vocal leader in the weight room for the team. He gets after it.”

With continued work heading into 2020, Brown could potentially stake a claim as not only the most outstanding offensive lineman in the Missouri Valley but the entire country. All the talent is there and the course is right in front of him. He is sure to have an opportunity to continue his career well beyond his Panther career. 

For now, Spencer has some huge expectations for his final year on campus. Individual accolades are nice but the team aspirations are always the first out of his mouth. 

“Expectations are always high. Obviously the first step is to win the conference but we want to make a run at the National Championship.”

Elerson Smith

When you pop on the Northern Iowa defensive tape from this past season, it is hard to miss All-American defensive end, Elerson Smith… literally. At 6’7” and 245 pounds, he routinely towers over the opposition. Looking at the impact he was able to have on what was one of the premier defensive units in the MVC (Missouri Valley Conference) and the entire FCS (Football Championship Subdivision), it is tough to imagine Elerson did not see the field regularly until his third year on campus. 

Like Spencer, Elerson came in as an athletic specimen who still had yet to grow into his long frame. Originally coming out of Minneapolis South High School, Elerson was a standout athlete on both sides of the ball at tight end and defensive end. The delay was that he was a couple of meals and the weight room away before regular playing time. 

“I came in right around 200 pounds,” Smith said. “It has been about continuing to eat right and get to work in the weight room.”

Everyone knew the weight would come eventually and it was only a matter of time until his potential was unlocked. His skill set was so enticing however, the coaches even experimented with him at another position to see how he potentially fit. 

“When I was a freshman, the coaching staff gave me a look at tight end,” Elerson recalled. “The defensive side of the ball was just a better fit for me. I like to hit people, not the other way around.”

With Briley manning the tight end position already, it just made the most sense that Smith would stick to the defensive side of the football. As we can see, that decision has paid off big time so far in his career, especially this past season. 

2018 was, in fact, our first glimpse into the type of talent Elerson brought to the table. As a rotational piece of a deep defensive line unit, he would still manage to put up some noteworthy statistics. Smith would record a rock-solid 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks during that campaign. Substantial numbers when you consider that he was just working as a part-time member of the unit. For what would come next was no surprise to Elerson.

“For me, it was about getting more reps and an opportunity to show what I can do.”

Those reps, Smith would take to full advantage. 2019 was a year to remember for him. It was his first to see the majority of the reps, not just as a situational piece of the defensive line. He responded with one of the finest defensive seasons in program history. 

While the backfield production was something we had seen from Smith, the increase in production was staggering for the redshirt junior. Playing time had done exactly what he said it would, giving him the opportunity to feast. 

In the run game, he was anything but underwhelming. Smith would rack up 63 total tackles, not quite the liability some may assume from his lanky frame. Throw in an additional five forces fumbles and you are looking at one of the most impressive stat lines in college football on any level.

When asking Elerson about how he was able to have such a breakout season, he pointed to preparation and his teammates for their constant efforts. 

“Playing against Spencer and Briley every day, it has forced me to become a much better player. Competition has been huge.” 

Working against such tenacious competitors like Brown and Moore every day was surely a huge help for Elerson, we can not look past what type of daunting task it is to handle him can be. At 6’7” and 245 pounds, he is a rare football player at his level. There are a handful of guys on any level that boast this combination of size and athleticism. 

“Going against Elerson every day has made me a better football player,” said Spencer. “His get-off and length are elite. He seems like he is behind you as the ball is snapped. 

As was true of the entire group, Elerson also viewed the 2016 recruiting class pretty highly early on.

“We saw some of the guys we had coming in. It was obvious that this group could do some really special things.”

If 2019 was any indicator, we should all expect a ton from this high upside defensive end going into the 2020 season. Already the boast of the Missouri Valley Conference and a nationally recognized piece on the defensive side of the football, the next step is to transcend his perceived “lack of competition” label. No matter the level, Smith presents talent that can produce anywhere. 2020 will be the starting point towards even bigger things. 

Xavior Williams

An All-MVC performer over his three seasons of play, defensive back Xavior Williams has been a pillar of consistency for the Panther defense. Those three seasons have been highlighted by career totals of 122 tackles, eight interceptions, and 24 pass breakups. 

Originally coming out of Notre Dame High School, Williams took every advantage of opportunity fresh off of a redshirt year in 2016. He was selected as a Freshman All-American honoree following his fantastic season in 2017, recording four interceptions and eight pass breakups for the Panthers. 

He would take full reigns on his cornerback position, one he would occupy for the first two seasons of his playing career. Williams would once again experience another productive season in 2018, again intercepting four interceptions for the team. He was quickly becoming arguably the team’s most consistent performer on the defensive side of the ball.

If there were any questions of Williams’ versatility after playing mostly on the outside early in his career, 2019 was a season to change that opinion. The All-MVC defensive back would make the move inside, seeing reps at both safety and nickel back for the team. 

“I am versatile… being able to play on the outside, in the nickel or inside at safety. I can bring matchup advantages to the team.”

Xavior again would show off his production, setting career highs in both tackles (50) and pass breakups (13). No matter the position, outside or in, Williams’ athleticism and nose for the football are always on constant display. 

That move inside showed selflessness to Williams that he has in common with the rest of the original 2016 class. That is what is setting them up for a special ending to their chapter of UNI football. It isn’t the quality of players. We know they have that. It isn’t just the on-field victories. They have seen plenty. It is the bond that they have developed together.  

“We love playing together. We have a bunch of really athletic guys who just love to play the game.”

Make no mistake about it, however, Xavior sits as one of the better defensive backs across any FCS school in the nation. His ability to play multiple positions shows off the type of player he is. No matter where he lines up, one thing is certain, you can bet that #9 is always going to be around the football.

Perhaps the best athlete in the 2016 recruiting class (more on that later), Williams was not oblivious to the amount of talent the class possessed. 

“When we first got here, it was quick to see the type of talent that was in the 2016 class.”

Like playing a broken record, there is only one way for this group to go out. Through my meetings with everyone and probing of goals, one thing was consistent. One thing has been ingrained in then. There is one spot that they all want their Panthers careers to end.  

“In 2020, we want to get to the National Championship. We want to be playing down in Frisco.”

The Final Act

Apart from the individual backstories for each star of the 2016 recruiting class, one consistency remained as I spoke to each individually. That is the drive and expectations that each of them has to make 2020 a special one. 

The bar could not be set any higher. Each mentioned claiming a Missouri Valley title for the Northern Iowa program, which would be a special accomplishment by all regards. That wasn’t the big goal, however. 

Each, and every player, has their eyes set much higher. The goal is to make it down to Frisco, in hopes of capturing the first national championship in program history. 

It takes a special group to achieve such lofty goals… and that’s exactly what we have here. This senior group has continuously trumped previous expectations on a year to year basis.

“They came in and a lot of them were up for playing time, and just about all of them were going to compete as true or RS-Fr I could tell,” Scott-Brown said. “In 2017 when they all had 1 or 2 years under their belt with playing time, you could tell that they all were going to be special,  and it has shown throughout their career.”

Classmates and outsiders alike are aware of the talent this group possesses. Early on it was apparent that something special was brewing with this group in particular. As Scott-Brown put it, “the expectations are for them to be the only thing to stop them because they have all of the talent in the world.”

What the journey holds is a mystery and what the ultimate end result for 2020 will be is still to be determined. What we know for sure is that this group is special. Together, they seem destined to continue to surprise and flourish. We all know what is left to do fellas… We will see you in Frisco. 

From the Eye of a Scout

Over the proud history of Northern Iowa football, there have been a total of 19 players selected during the NFL Draft. Perhaps the most notable selection in program history took place during the 2015 NFL Draft, where Arizona Cardinals pro bowl running back David Johnson was selected with the 86th selection in the third round. 

Two other Panthers have been selected since then (Deiondre’ Hall in 2016, Daurice Fountain in 2018), making the Panthers no stranger to producing next-level talent. 

Worth noting for this exercise, Northern Iowa has never had more than two players selected in any year of their existence. That statistic is likely to change once the 2021 NFL Draft comes to a conclusion. 

This 2016 recruiting class could very well be a record-setting class. Not just for what the team is potentially able to accomplish on the field but for what their transitions might include moving forward. 

These four young men, in particular, are set up for success no matter what the future brings. With a limitless amount of character and work ethic, they more than set up after they take off the helmet for the last time. 

Each one, however, may be able to put a momentary hold on the “real world” for a few years. 

When projecting players to the NFL level, evaluators are looking for traits to build on for down the road. Size thresholds are very real. How much good weight you can add to a frame is another huge asset, as long as it is not sacrificing athleticism. 

Those types of frames are what defensive end Elerson Smith and offensive tackle Spencer Brown possess to the highest of degrees. At 6’7” and 245 pounds, Smith has a long and lean frame that could easily carry another 20-25 pounds as he transitions to the next level. 

2019 was just a glimpse of long term potential for Smith. After leading the conference in quarterback sacks with 14, he is back in 2020 with even higher expectations. 

We saw flashes dating back to 2018 of what could be coming, where he recorded 10.5 tackles for loss with an additional 7.5 sacks as a rotational piece of a deep defensive line unit. 

The jump from 2018 to 2019, however, is to a staggering level. How Northern Iowa was able to keep a player of this talent off the field might be a better question. 

During the notable 2019 season for the Panthers, Elerson achieved All American honors, leading the entire  Missouri Valley conference with 21.5 tackles for loss and the aforementioned 14 sacks. 

Originally coming to the Panthers as an All-State tight end and defensive end out of Minneapolis South High School in Minnesota, Smith showed up on campus at a highly projectable 200 pounds on his then 6’6” frame, looking more suitable for the hardwood than college gridiron. 

As we can see, time, food and the weight room have done wonders for Smith. 

They do not make athletes like this at this type of size. He somewhat resembles former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson coming out of Georgia Tech… long, lean, athletic, with the ability to add weight without losing much in terms of movement skills. 

Serving mostly as a pass rush specialist in 2018, the goal for Elerson was to be counted on to hold an every-down role for the Panthers in 2019. 

With a player of his long, lean frame, it is natural to wonder whether he possesses the functional strength to hold up in the run game.

He proved fully up to that challenge. 

Not only was he able to hold up, but Elerson also flourished in the role. He possesses active hands, showing the ability to counteract power to a high degree at the point of attack. 

This allows him to maintain space and leverage from offensive lineman attempting to win inside. 

The length is notable. The upside is rare. If 2019 was any indicator, Elerson has a fantastic opportunity to receive several All-Star circuit opportunities once the 2020 season concludes. 

At that time, he will have every chance to show that his talent transcends the name on the front of his jersey. 

A similarly billed story, starting right tackle Spencer Brown once came to the UNI program as a former tight end and defensive lineman from Lenox High School in Iowa, playing eight-man football for his hometown squad. Brown tipped the scales at just around 220 pounds on his then 6’8” frame when he first stepped foot on campus. 

“They both came in super skinny, and you could see some potential in both of them, but knew it would be a long process,” Scott-Brown reminisced. 

“Then the next year they both looked freakish, and have gotten more freakish every year. For how tall and long they are, Elerson is one of not the best power cleaners on the team and has a strong lower body as well. And with Spencer, he was one of the stronger squatters on the team. That right there tells you a lot.”

Obviously that frame has been buoyed significantly to the 6’9” 321-pound behemoth right tackle that we see today. What perhaps is the most intriguing about that weight gain, Spencer has done it the right way. Most hear 321 pounds and have the words “obese”, “overweight” and “pudgy” begin to flow through their minds. 

No, Spencer and the strength-nutrition staffs need to be commended. Brown has been able to mold his frame into the long, powerful build that resembles San Francisco 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s to a high degree. The best part, there is still more weight to be added if need be. It might not be necessary, however. Brown shows off his quick feet in space while having the ability to generate more than enough power at the point of attack. 

Every year, we see a small school offensive lineman that becomes the budding developmental player that NFL teams salivate over. From Terron Armstead (Ark-Pine Bluff), Ali Marpet (Hobart) and now Ben Bartch (Saint John’s), scouts are always in search of the next big-time player ascending his college level of competition while grabbing NFL stardom. 

My early bet is that that player is Spencer Brown. 

The size will obviously speak for itself. They don’t make offensive tackles of this size-length very often. They especially don’t make them with as much clean weight as this either.

As a former tight end recruit, Spencer has worked long and hard to put on the weight in a reasonable amount of time. Evaluators will marvel at the possibilities for even further development of his desired frame. 

The key for Spencer is he has been able to keep the foot quickness through the rapid weight gain. He is an easy athlete who has no problem matching athletic edge rushers working around the track as a pass protector. 

From a technical standpoint, he has improved tremendously with each year of experience. He does a tremendous job as a mirror player, keeping the desired body position and maintaining a square chest. 

Spencer has also seen a big improvement as a run blocker, showing off his increased strength from his powerful frame. At 6’9”, Spencer is forced to fight a battle with leverage in spite of his god-given height. That is where he has made the most growth. His pad level from 2018 to 2019 was remarkably improved, allowing him to create so much more initial power on the first contact. 

With a final year or improvement on the horizon, the sky’s the limit for Spencer’s game. It won’t be long for other analysts and scouts to catch on either. 

If you asked anyone familiar with FCS football and the NFL Draft scene heading into 2019, there would be an easy answer as to who the best Draft prospect on the Northern Iowa team was… All-MVC tight end Briley Moore. Before Adam Trautman burst into the scene, Moore could have staked a claim as the early favorite to be the top tight end prospect out of the FCS ranks this cycle. 

That of course was put on hold following a shoulder injury in the Panthers season opener. 

An All Missouri Valley selection in both 2017 and 2018, Briley was poised for a dynamic season as a senior. His journey became clouded after a shoulder injury in their season-opening matchup against Iowa State. 

It turned out that dominating the best conference on the FCS level was not finished for Briley. The opportunity to end his career the right way came to fruition for him. The redshirt year he had not used in 2016 had been his saving grace to return to a championship-starved Northern Iowa team for the 2020 season. 

Now, what makes Briley so special as a potential 2021 NFL Draft prospect is easy to see. He is a super smooth athlete who shows off his god-given athleticism threatening the seam vertically. 

A large target at 6’4” and 249 pounds, Briley profiles as a mismatch against smaller defensive backs with his size-length. So let’s put a linebacker on him right?

That’s an even more risky proposition, possessing the plus foot quickness to put linebackers in binds. His background as a former high school wide receiver is easy to see, boasting the talent to run an expanded route tree at the next level. 

In the run game is where you start to lose the wide receiver moniker. Briley gets after it in that department. Constantly revered by his teammates for his work as a run blocker, Moore has a clear understanding of leverage as he attacks half a man on a consistent basis. With all our effort, this is not a tight end that will be mistaken as a one-trick pony by any means. 

We all like to believe that everything happens for a reason, even through constant trials and tribulations. One thing is certain, Briley is a player to keep a firm eye on throughout the 2020 college football season and 2021 NFL Draft process. 

Look for him to pick up just where he left off on the team’s quest towards a national championship. 

As the NFL game becomes more and more predicated on manufacturing and manipulating space offensively, the defensive side of the football is forced to constantly change with the times. That leaves a big need for versatile defensive backs who could potentially fulfill a multitude of roles in a defensive secondary. 

A role that defensive back Xavior Williams is no stranger to. 

Operating mostly on the outside through his first two seasons, Xavior was used in a variety of roles during the 2019 season. 

Playing a large amount of nickel and safety during this past season, Williams could be the versatile chess piece that the NFL is more and more gravitating towards. It is no longer about specializing in one position. With the rise of the regularity of the nickel position, the ability for defensive backs to play inside is becoming a paramount ability, even in base alignments.

An even more interesting proposition for the next level is having players who can do a little of everything… eliminating unnecessary shuffling-substitutions to a degree. Labeling is so 2019. Cornerbacks, safeties, nickelbacks… whatever you want to call Xavior Williams, let’s just say matchup optimizer. 

So what makes Xavior such a great football player?

It begins with his well balanced athletic profile. He is revered by his teammates as arguably the best athlete on the entire team and especially the defense. He even doubles as an accomplished high and long jumper for the Northern Iowa track team, including a personal best of 6’10” in the high jump (7’0” personal best while in high school).

It is his quick feet and explosiveness in short areas that present him as such an excellent cover man. 

Specifically, when used inside, his elite foot quickness is able to maintain adequate leverage working against an increased amount of space in man coverage. He also possesses some nice range when working in deep zones, displaying a notable level of eye discipline working from both two and single high. 

And don’t let the size fool you, my friends. Despite carrying just 183 pounds on his 5’11” frame, Williams is a capable and willing defender in the run game. He does an awesome job when running the alley, flashing several top-notch reps working inside out against wide receiver screens.

Like pass rushers, a team can never have enough cover guys on the next level, especially those who can match up in man coverage from a variety of alignments. Williams is sure to be an attractive piece that can occupy several roles transitioning to the next level. 

“Xavior is such a versatile and smart player back there,” said McElveen. “He is a crazy athlete who covers a ton of ground.”

I implore you all to sit back and appreciate the rareness of this situation. In most years, we can count on two hands the number of FCS prospects that here their name called during the NFL Draft. 

Northern Iowa is going to have a legitimate chance to have four young men continue their professional paths in one season. That is rare. 

So go, file the names away and witness greatness. It’s a two-stop plan for 2016 recruiting class remaining. Step one, a national championship. Step two, the National Football League. 

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