Eastern Illinois defensive end Tim Varga (97) is one of three returning starters on the defensive line for the Panthers this season. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Barry Bottino
CHARLESTON — Trying to stop the run last season was a chore for Eastern Illinois.
Seven different times during a 1-10 season, the Panthers gave up at least 150 yards on the ground and rank last in the Ohio Valley Conference by allowing 180.6 yards. On four occasions, they gave up at least 200 yards.
“You lose a little bit of motivation,” junior defensive end Tim Varga of Elk Grove High School said of the team’s struggles against opposing offenses. “The confidence is not there, and football is all about confidence.”
With two weeks to go before their season opener at Northern Illinois on Sept. 1, the Panthers are determined not to repeat their 2021 performance.
“That has been a big focus for us,” first-year head coach Chris Wilkerson said after a recent practice. “We believe if you control the line of scrimmage, you’ll at least have a chance (to win.)”
Varga is one of three returning starters for EIU, including fellow defensive end Jordan Miles and interior lineman Cameron Leach, a 295-pound junior. Three players who were listed as backups in the 2021 season finale also return.
“The nice thing is that all of these guys are back,” second-year defensive line coach Adam Morris said. “We have a lot of experience.”
Morris’ unit – which Wilkerson called one of the deepest on the team – also has several new faces.
The Panthers added three junior college defensive linemen along with 6-foot-4, 275-pound transfer Tre’jon Lewis from Texas Tech. Three of the four additions weigh at least 275 pounds.
“In an ideal world, we want to have as many guys that you trust going into a football game as possible,” Morris said. “When you have more bodies, you can cycle guys through. We have more guys who are going to be game ready. We had guys playing 60, 65, 70 snaps at times. I’d love to keep that number closer to 40.”
Wilkerson said having more available players on game day also gives the team flexibility to match opposing offenses. He said against some run-heavy opponents, Eastern could play in with five defensive linemen or five of its biggest bodies.
Junior Braylon Willis, a 6-4, 245-pound transfer from East Los Angeles College, said he has seen plenty of evidence that the Panthers have turned a corner.
“Leadership. Everybody taking accountability,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who really want to get after it. I see this defense really jelling together. Nobody wants a repeat of last year. That doesn’t look good.”