Preparations for the 2016 football season are officially underway at UNI. Spring practice for Coach Mark Farley's team began in the UNI-Dome on Wednesday (March 30, 2016).

The Panthers will have 14 on-field practices leading up to the Spring Game on Friday, April 29. That's in addition to film sessions, early morning lifting, and running.

UNI returns 16 starters to the gridiron this spring along with a crop of redshirt freshmen that are eager to don the Purple and Old Gold this fall. The Panthers also bring back an experienced staff that is ready to take the Panthers to new heights in 2016.

New to Farley's staff is UNI alum and former tight end Ryan Mahaffey, who spent the last two seasons at Notre Dame. He was part of the coaching staff that helped the Fighting Irish to a Music City Bowl win over No. 24 ranked Rutgers in 2014 and a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2015, along with coaching an offense that finished the 2015 season ranked in the top-35 in FBS football in scoring offense and total offense.

Mahaffey will serve as UNI’s co-offensive coordinator along with working with the Panther wide receivers. The St. Louis, Mo. native was the tight ends coach for the Panthers in 2013 after seeing action in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and the Miami Dolphins. He graduated from UNI in 2011 with a degree in economics after playing in 51 career games as a two-time All-MVFC and Scholar-Athlete selection.

The Panthers are coming off their 18th FCS playoff appearance and 13th quarterfinal game in program history. They had six wins against Top-25 opponents in 2015, finishing the season ranked No. 6 in the final FCS Coaches Poll. UNI brought in the fifth-best recruiting class in the FCS according to Hero Sports for 2016 and will have over 20-plus years of NFL coaching or playing experience on the 2016 coaching staff.

Out of UNI’s 16 returning starters, nine are on the offensive side of the ball, including four of the five starting linemen from a year ago. On defense, Panther fans will get to see a youthful secondary that is full of quick hands and explosive plays along with a veteran defensive line that is eager to top their sack total from last season.

Leading the attack this spring will be the dual threat duo of seniors Aaron Bailey and Tyvis Smith. In 2015, both rushed for over 1,000 yards, giving UNI two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time in UNI history. The Panthers finished the season with a school record 3,266 yards on the ground, ranking them No. 15 in the country in rushing offense.

Smith and Bailey’s success in 2015 is attributed to a solid offensive line. UNI brings back Bryce Sweeney, Trevor Hanson, Cal Twait, Chris Schleuger and senior captain Robert Rathje after combining for 53 starts on the line for the Panthers last season.

Bailey also proved his ability as a dual threat quarterback, racking up 1,656 passing yards on 121 completions for 13 touchdowns. His passing game including his school and MVFC record 19 rushing touchdowns earned him Missouri Valley Football Conference Newcomer of the Year.

Smith finished the season with four games in the 100-yard rushing range, including a career-high 207 yards against Portland State in the playoffs, the first 200-yard rushing game a Panther has had since David Johnson’s 205 against Missouri State in 2014. Smith earned All-MVFC honorable mention for his standout junior season and will look to take the reins of the Panther offense in 2016.

Headlining the UNI defense will be four returning starters in Karter Schult, Jared Farley, Adam Reth and D’Shawn Dexter. The Panthers finished 2015 ranked No. 26 in total defense, No. 19 in sacks, No. 21 in tackles for loss and No. 16 in scoring defense thanks in large part to UNI’s defensive line and strong linebacker core.

Schult, a senior from Tripoli, wrapped up last season with a school record 23.0 tackles for loss, ranking him No. 15 in the country. He started all 14 games for the Panthers, earning 82 tackles and 15 sacks while getting selections to the All-MVFC first-team, STATS FCS All-America second-team and CoSIDA Academic All-America first-team.

Farley and Dexter were anchors last season at linebacker, combining for 163 total tackles. Farley finished second on the team with 97 tackles, adding 9.0 for loss, three sacks, one interception and two fumble recoveries. Dexter chipped in 66 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, one interception, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble.

UNI opens the 2016 season at Iowa State on Sept. 3 in Ames. The Panthers' schedule also includes match ups against four teams that finished 2015 ranked in the top-25, all seeing action in the playoffs.

Football season ticket renewals are due April 1. For more information on renewing your season tickets, contact the UNI Ticket Office at 319-273-4849 or visit www.UNITix.uni.edu.