Three Panthers stand out in the NFL

Houston Texans running back David Johnson during his time at UNI.

DAVID WARRINGTON

Northern Iowa is known as one of the most consistent, successful teams in all of Division 1AA. As a perennial playoff participant, the Panthers do a great job of producing NFL-caliber players in a level of football that often doesn’t produce that many. There are currently three former Panthers on active, 53-man NFL rosters, with others fighting to earn a spot.

The most recognizable NFL player to come out of UNI since Kurt Warner is running back David Johnson. He played running back at Northern Iowa from 2011-2014, setting numerous school records along the way. He was a third-round draft selection by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFL Draft. He immediately proved that he belonged in the NFL, putting up nearly 1,000 all-purpose yards as a rookie, and making the Pro Bowl in his second season.

After several years in Arizona, Johnson was traded to the Houston Texans this past offseason. He came into the season as the starter and has not disappointed. In the opening game of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs, Johnson had a strong game, running the ball 11 times for 77 yards, as well as scoring the first touchdown of the 2020 season on a 19-yard run in the first quarter. Overall, Johnson has had a pretty strong start to the year, running the ball 35 times for 134 yards and two touchdowns, while also catching seven passes for 71 yards.

UNI alum L.J. Fort is doing big things in the NFL as a linebacker. He was a three-year starter for the Panthers and was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Football Conference as a senior in 2011. Despite this success, he went undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft. He was picked up by the Cleveland Browns prior to the 2012 season and bounced around from team to team for several years until landing with the Baltimore Ravens in 2019, where he has found the most success. After earning a starting spot midway through last season, Fort has come into his own this year. Fort has 12 tackles through three games, which is on pace to be a career high. He has also forced one fumble and recovered two, one of which he returned for the second touchdown of his NFL career. After several years as a journeyman, Fort has solidified himself as a strong force on the Baltimore defense.

Another former Panther currently in the NFL is wide receiver Daurice Fountain, who played for the Panthers from 2014-2017. As a true freshman he immediately received significant playing time, and by his sophomore year he had become the focal point of the Panthers aerial attack. He also received an invitation to the annual East-West Shrine Game after his senior year, where he was named the offensive MVP. All of this led to Fountain being selected in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.

It’s been a bit of a struggle to start Fountain’s professional career. After spending nearly all of his rookie season on the practice squad, a preseason ankle injury kept him out of action all of last year. However, this season he is healthy and ready to perform for the Colts. He has already caught two passes for 23 yards, and is ready to contribute more to the Colts offense.

It is always exciting to see a player go from playing in the UNI-Dome on Saturdays to playing in NFL stadiums on Sundays, and with the success of the Northern Iowa football program, it’s no surprise to see former Panthers playing in the NFL. As the years go on, we are sure to see more and more Panthers drafted to the biggest stage that football has to offer.