The Eastern Illinois defense is focused on a goal of creating 25 turnovers this season. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Dan Verdun
CHARLESTON — If there’s a mathematical formula to success, first-year Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson thinks he has part of the equation.
“The statistics will show you that if you take away 25 possessions from the offense, that you have a chance to win eight or more football games. So, that’s the goal for our defense,” Wilkerson told Prairie State Pigskin following Saturday’s annual EIU spring game.
There’s no doubt the Panthers are looking for any way to get wins after a 1-10 season under former head coach Adam Cushing.
EIU opponents were +5 in turnover margin in 2021. Furthermore, Panther foes outscored EIU 78-54 in points off turnovers.
“The focus this spring was just to continue to improve and to develop the (team) relationships, but at the same time it was trying to take the football away. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on defense,” said Wilkerson, who was hired during the winter following Cushing’s departure to become the offensive line coach at Duke University.
Ten defensive starters scheduled to return
EIU returns 10 of 11 defensive starters from a year ago. Linebacker Jason Johnson, who led the Ohio Valley Conference in tackles, left the Panthers via the transfer portal and will play for FBS Central Florida in the fall.
A closer look at the turnovers Eastern created a year ago reveals the Panthers forced 23 fumbles — recovering 14 — but intercepted only four passes in 11 games.
“Last season we lacked getting turnovers, so that’s something we’re after. Everybody is swarming around the ball,” sophomore linebacker Colin Bohanek said. “Today (during the scrimmage) we got four, so that’s a big emphasis.”
All four turnovers in the spring game came on interceptions — two by sophomore Blake Ruffin.
“Everybody was getting on me because I’ve dropped a lot in practice, so I came in here and caught two in the first half,” Ruffin said.
The 6-foot-4 and 215-pound Ruffin is listed as a safety on EIU’s roster, but qualifies as one of the versatile players Wilkerson wants.
“We’ve got guys that have played corner that are now playing ‘Fox’ (outside linebacker), and we’ve got guys that have played ‘Fox’ that are now playing safety,” Wilkerson said.
“One of the real strengths of this defense is that guys can play multiple positions,” said first-year defensive coordinator Adam Gristick, who was promoted from linebackers coach and is the lone holdover assistant from Cushing’s staff.
“The greater number of positions that you actually know how to play, the more flexibility we have with you and it’s just a matter of just getting the next best player in if you don’t happen to be one of those 11 (starters) out there,” Wilkerson said.
One of the ways to improve Eastern’s defense is by getting more of out its offense.
A year ago, the Panthers struggled mightily with the ball. EIU was one of only nine FCS teams in the nation to average fewer than 15 points a game. That number, combined with a 25-percent success rate on third down, often left the Eastern defense on the field for long stretches.
The third quarter was particularly hard on the Panthers. Last season, Eastern converted only 4-of-30 (13.3 percent) on third down in that period. Meanwhile, opponents went 19-for-37 (51.4 percent) against EIU. Thus, it’s little surprise that opponents controlled the clock and outscored Eastern 92-24 in the often deciding third quarter.
“We made some changes on defense, to not get beat on different things, but with 10 returners on defense it was good to keep a lot of the main things the same. We want to play fast and physically,” said Bohanek, who in Johnson’s absence, is EIU’s top returning tackler.
“Take 25 is our motto. The goal is to have 25 takeaways by the end of the season,” said Gristick, the former Panther linebacker who helped EIU win back-to-back OVC championships in 2012 and 2013.