Redemption was a big theme in Cedar Falls as the UNI football team held their annual meeting with the media Wednesday. The Panthers suffered through an injury-plagued, 7-5 season last year. But the Panthers have eighteen starters back this season,

Panther coach Mark Farley says that group will play a large role in dictating how the new season goes. “That will be the basis of this football team. There’s good talent at some of the younger positions, but it always goes back to if you’ve got talent and leadership — guys that are invested in the program because they’ve been here — those are the ones who will battle for you in those tight situations that will make the difference between a good season and a great season,” Farley says. “The opportunity is there. We have to take advantage of that opportunity.”

The 2013 season saw the Panthers lose starters to injury at several key positions, including wide receiver, middle linebacker, and in their secondary. But according to Farley, the upside of dealing with those setbacks is a deeper team this season. Farley says they probably have more depth and more talented depth this year than they have had in the past. He says those are players who have the ability to come in and have the knowledge to play the game.

The Panthers open their season at Iowa on August 30. Farley says that playing an FBS team to begin the season presents a whole separate set of challenges. “We have to get this team to a very high level again for that first football game. If we don’t it’s going to be a very long afternoon. So we’ve got to get to a very high level,” Farley says. “Once we get to that level now you’ve got to sustain that for 12 more weeks — very hard to do. Sometimes the way you want to build a program is to keep growing it through the season and then everybody says you are better in the second game than you were in the first. We’d better be good in the first or we won’t have anything left in the second.”

According to Farley, 105 UNI players spent their summer in Cedar Falls preparing for the season. He says that shows their commitment on and off the field. “Now that’s different from other universities because at the FBS you get scholarships in the summer. At the FCS, if you stay, you pay. And you stay there because you want to be there, you stay there because you want to be there for your teammates. That number changes at FCS,” Farley says. “When you have 105 guys in the weight room all summer long working, when it is on them, that just shows the commitment and what they want to do with their team and what they want to do with their talent. That says a lot for them.”

UNI was picked to finish 3rd in the Missouri Valley Football Conference by the league’s coaches. The Panthers are 15th in the preseason FCS poll released by The Sports Network.

(Reporting by Jesse Gavin, KCNZ, Cedar Falls)