In only four games last season, EIU wide receiver Isaiah Hill (7) managed to lead the team with 39 catches and 493 yards. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Dan Verdun
If Isaiah Hill’s collegiate career were compared to a stop light, there have been nearly as many yellow and red lights as there have been green.
Hill, the 5-foot-11 redshirt senior, wants nothing more than solid green as he enters the avenue leading into his final season.
“I finally feel like I’m back to a point where I’m 100 percent,” Hill said via a Zoom call from Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference media day.
Hill’s list of injuries during his career have included broken fingers and a “strained MCL”. However, the worst came via a torn Achilles in Feb. 2021.
“That was the week before our first game (during the spring Covid year season),” Hill said. “I went home, found a surgeon and got my Achilles repaired (in early March). I did a couple of months of rehab.
“I came back in the spring and was ready for the fall camp.”
However, on a rainy fall camp day Hill caught a ball in the back of the end zone.
“I tweaked my MCL,” he said.
The Panthers offense sputtered without Hill in lineup. He returned for the final four games and managed to lead EIU with 39 receptions and 493 receiving yards.
Hill ended season with three straight games with 100 or more yards receiving and double-figure receptions in each contest to earn second team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors.
Hill had 11 catches for 207 yards at Southeast Missouri, a mark that was eighth best single-game receiving total in school history.
“It was super great feeling. That’s what you work for your career to have games like that,” Hill said.
On Tuesday, Hill was named to the preseason All-OVC offensive team along with tight end Jay Vallie, who missed last season with an injury.
Despite his success, thoughts of those tough times stay with Hill.
“I can’t even tell you how many nights I was in my room (thinking) ‘this is it; I’m probably never going to be able to play football again’,” Hill said. “I was just sitting in my room thinking and crying.
“I love this game so much that I wanted to do everything I could to get back to the field. Luckily I was able to do that within a short time period.”
Hill originally committed out of high school to play at South Dakota State, where he spent two years before transferring to Eastern in 2019 as a redshirt sophomore.
Granted an NCAA transfer waiver to play at the start of conference schedule that season, Hill played in the final eight games, making six starts at wide receiver and being named to All-OVC Newcomer Team. He led team with 58 pass receptions for 571 yards.
Asked if he thought of transferring again during his injury-plagued time at EIU, Hill said, “Definitely there were some thoughts of ‘I need to get out of here’ but this is the place to be. I like that I’m here, and I’m just glad to be here.”
First-year head coach and EIU alum Chris Wilkerson likes that Hill is in Charleston as well.
“Isaiah is a great story,” Wilkerson said. “He’s battled injuries during his career, but was our most productive wide receiver last year.
“A phenomenal football player, a phenomenal leader. Our biggest task as a staff is now to try to find creative ways to get him the ball in space and to get him some more touches and to maintain his health. That’s been the biggest thing during the course of his career.”
Could those creative ways include putting Hill in the backfield at times?
“In high school I was lined up in the backfield a lot,” Hill said. “At Minooka I played pretty much everywhere, whether it was me on jet sweeps or coming out of the Power I (formation) doing a lot of running back stuff. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this team. If they need to put me in the backfield, I’m all for it.”
Wilkerson also noted that Hill is working on his MBA and has been “another coach on the field working with the younger receivers.”
Who will get Hill the ball?
Redshirt freshman Zach Weir and Bartlett High School product Jonah O’Brien are the lone quarterbacks with EIU game experience.
Weir, from Grafton, Wisc., completed 32-of-66 throws in 2021. He had one touchdown and was intercepted four times.
O’Brien returned to EIU after a stint at Colorado State. O’Brien, a redshirt sophomore, began 2019 as the EIU scout team quarterback but played the final home game of the season against Southeast Missouri, completing 12-of-21 pass attempts for 84 yards and one interception.
Meanwhile, South Bend native and University of Virginia transfer Ira Armstead II is a dual-threat option. A former three-star recruit by ESPN.com and 247sports.com, the sophomore is listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds.
Freshman Kevin Conway, who played quarterback and safety at Providence Catholic High School and attended Diamond Football Academy prep school in Happy, Texas in the fall, transferred into EIU for the spring semester.
“I like all four of our quarterbacks. It’s going to be a tight battle between all of them. I don’t know who’s going to come out on top, but when it comes to chemistry I try to go in with every one of them and get as many reps as I can,” Hill said.
Following spring practice, the Panthers added senior Dom Shoffner, a transfer from FBS Charlotte. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Shoffner began his collegiate career at North Carolina Central and also played at Monroe (NY) Junior College.
EIU opens fall camp July 31. The Panthers open the season on Thursday, Sept. 1 at FBS member Northern Illinois. The home opener is Sept. 10 against Chattanooga, a non-conference opponent.