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CEDAR FALLS | Offensive linemen have each other's backs. Teammates are expected to have each other's backs.

Northern Iowa offensive lineman Bryce Sweeney, a 6-foot-5, 323-pound senior from Sioux City has a big back and he'd lend it to anyone of his teammates.

That is what was happening in June 2016 during the first week of lifting when Sweeney was spotting a teammate on the bench press. As his teammate tried to finish a set of heavy weight, his arms failed and Sweeney jumped in.

"I pulled with all my might," Sweeney said.

Unfortunately, the quick and maximum effort caused the T9 disc to herniate and press against his spinal cord. Surgery was required, and Sweeney, a 13-game starter in 2015 when the Panthers rushed for 2,353 yards, would miss the entire 2016 season.

"It was pretty difficult to sit out, you can't do anything, you can try to help but it was rough," Sweeney said. "I took the best of it, tried to concentrate on learning technique more in depth."

Sweeney, a former three-year starter at Sioux City Heelan, could've graduated last spring, but held it off to have the opportunity to play one last season.

After not having him for a season and then getting to see him operate again, UNI head coach Mark Farley had this to say about Sweeney's return in September.

"He has played excellent. He was our player of the week on the offensive line (against Iowa State), and I could've tagged him again this week (against Cal-Poly). He's been solid," Farley said.

After the year's absence, which included light drills during the spring, Sweeney returned completely healthy ready for pre-season practice in August and lining up once again at right tackle. But with the emergence of Spencer Brown, Sweeney was asked to move to right guard where he started the first six games of the regular season.

But after Brown went down with a leg injury against Western Illinois, UNI was forced to move players around up front. Sweeney stayed at right guard, but when a reoccurring injury to left tackle Cal Twait was aggravated against South Dakota State, Sweeney was moved back to his original position at tackle.

"I think he is a prototypical guard," UNI offensive line coach Mike Simmonds said. "His versatility of being playing guard or tackle has been a big plus for us. At guard, he is one of the most physical pullers I've been around. He is a force."

"Now the move from guard back to tackle, that was like riding a bike," added Sweeney.

In addition to contribution on the field, Simmonds says Sweeney and fellow senior lineman Lee Carhart have been been important leaders off the field for the Panthers.

With just six credits left to wrap up his degree in criminology, Panther fans may see more of Sweeney around the Cedar Valley in the near future as he hopes to become police officer in the area.

Told he already has the intimidating presence down, Sweeney laughed, "I get that a lot. I switched to criminology as a red-shirt freshman and I just loved all the classes, and I grew up wanting to be a police officer."

Sweeney and the offensive line had things rolling in wins over South Dakota State and Youngstown State, but the entire offense got out of sync in a loss to No. 2 North Dakota State last week.

Sweeney and his teammates are expecting a better showing Saturday when the Panthers host sixth-ranked South Dakota in the UNI-Dome, UNI's fourth consecutive top-ten opponent.

"NDSU film has been watched, we've learned from it and coach Farley said to take the anger and frustration from that and use it to prepare better this week in practice," Sweeney said. "We can come out and play better, know we can play better."

Contact Jim Nelson at jim.nelson@wcfcourier.com.

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