Eastern Illinois in a hurry to put 2021 offensive performance in the past

Zach Weir was the first quarterback on the field for the EIU spring game. The Panthers are expecting to rev up their offense in 2022. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

By Barry Bottino

CHARLESTON — Everything the Eastern Illinois offense did Saturday during the annual spring football game had one thing in common – a faster pace.

“We’re very up-tempo,” tight end Jay Vallie said. “There’s a lot of different things we can do.”

Whether working with four wide receivers, two tight ends or two running backs on the field, as they did at times Saturday, Eastern worked a quick tempo.

The Panthers, who were 1-10 a year ago, appear to be in a hurry to put 2021 behind. Last season, they were one of only nine FCS teams in the nation to average fewer than 15 points a game.

Under new head coach Chris Wilkerson and offensive coordinator Joe Davis, the EIU offense Vallie said he envisions in the fall is “high-powered, fast.”

Redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Weir threw touchdowns Saturday to sophomore tight end Will Shumpert and junior wide receiver DeWayne Cooks.

Weir, who made his first career start in November against Austin Peay, said his comfort level in the offense has grown quickly since the new coaching staff came on board in January.

“The offense, I’m a big fan of it already,” he said. “I’m excited to compete with these guys. I’ve grown overall, just doing the basics right – my footwork, my reads, all sorts of stuff.”

Weir got the first reps at quarterback in Saturday’s game, which also included time for sophomores Jonah O’Brien and Ira Armstead, a University of Virginia transfer.

“Zach had earned the right to be the first one out there today,” Wilkerson said. “But we are going to continue to review that film, and we’ve told the quarterbacks all spring that nothing will be set in stone as a result of just this spring. We are still evaluating, and there are a lot of practices between now and Sept. 3 (the season opener at Northern Illinois.)”

Weir credited the offense’s multiple skill players with helping to give the Panthers some good vibes going into summer workouts.

“We’ve got a bunch of explosive guys,” he said. “This offense really has the chance to be explosive and just let guys be dudes in space and go make plays.”

News and notes

Saturday’s game featured visits from multiple members of EIU’s 2022 recruiting class and a potential new face at quarterback. Former Albany QB Jeff Undercuffler Jr., who threw for an FCS-leading 41 touchdowns in 2019, posted photos of his visit on Twitter and said he had received a scholarship offer from the Panthers. Davis, the new EIU offensive coordinator, is a former Albany assistant coach. … Cooks said he and fellow wide receiver Isaiah Hill are the only players on the EIU roster to go through a previous spring season, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring, Cooks said he has taken on a new role. “I feel like I’ve become more of a leader and a teacher of other receivers,” he said. Cooks had career highs last season with 13 catches and 141 receiving yards. Hill, who was limited by injuries last season, did not play Saturday. … More than 60 Eastern football alums attended the game in support of the program and Wilkerson, a former EIU player and assistant coach under legendary coach Bob Spoo. “It’s humbling,” Wilkerson said. “This place means so much to so many people. That’s what today was about for the alums, trying to get as many guys back that can be reconnected with the football family, and for our current players to see how much this does mean to so many people. I think they can feed off that energy.”

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