Redshirt sophomore linebacker/defensive lineman Joel Barrows (6) has been hampered by two ACL tears during his time at Eastern Illinois. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Barry Bottino
In three seasons with the Eastern Illinois football program, Joel Barrows has seven tackles – and two ACL tears – on his resume.
During fall camp in advance of the team’s Sept. 1 season opener at FBS Northern Illinois, Barrows made up for time lost with what new EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson called a “phenomenal” performance.
Barrows is one of four Fresh Faces at EIU heading into the 2022 season, as chosen by Prairie State Pigskin, that fans will notice on the field as a key contributor.
“One of the main things I promised myself is that I wouldn’t take the game for granted,” said Barrows, a graduate of Brooks College Prep in Chicago. “Being injured, I realized this is a privilege that can be taken away at any time.”
During fall camp as a freshman in 2019, he tore his left ACL. After playing five games during the spring 2021 COVID season, he tore his right ACL before last season.
“It was heart-wrenching,” Barrows admitted. “That was a major setback. I’ve had to overcome a lot of mental and physical hurdles during that time.”
This fall, however, Barrows has been a bright spot at EIU’s “Buck” position, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end with a variety of responsibilities.
“It allows me to jump into coverage a little and it also allows me to rush off the edge, depending on the package,” he said. “It’s a pretty diverse position as far as responsibilities and assignments.”
Wilkerson raved about Barrows after a recent practice in Charleston.
“Joel Barrows has had a phenomenal camp,” he said. “He has been disruptive. It has been a joy to watch.”
Barrows said the Buck position has allowed him to show off his physicality and communication skills on the field while embracing EIU’s defensive philosophy.
“We run to the ball in this defense every time we step on the field,” he said. “That’s priority No. 1. This year, I think we will definitely be a lot faster and more physical.”
Since leaving high school, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Barrows has added more than 50 pounds while changing roles on the field.
“Coming out of high school, I weighed 195,” he said. “I played cornerback and wide receiver. I started out in more of a safety role before I tore my ACL (as a freshman). The coaches said my frame would fill out.”
He credits the EIU strength and conditioning staff for helping him gain weight while getting stronger and maintaining his speed.
“I’ve gotten faster, and my speed has translated to the game because of how our strength coaches have designed the program,” he said.
Barrows said making an impact on the field this off-season is a product of overcoming the challenges he faced because of injuries.
“A big part of it was just not giving up,” he said. “Just sticking to rehab two times a day and not giving up is what I’m most proud of myself for.”
Foday Jollah, LB, Junior
In four years at FCS Central Connecticut State, Jollah played in nearly 30 games and was the team’s leading tackler with 81 stops in 2019. An injury last season, however, limited Jollah to five games.
Despite his limited play last season, the 6-2, 220-pound Jollah is known among talent evaluators. This spring, he was named to the Shrine Bowl 1,000, a list of the top 1,000 pro prospects in college football.
“He’s a guy that I think the NFL scouts are very aware of,” Wilkerson said. “We are counting on big things from him.”
Justin Bowick, WR, Freshman
At 6-5, Bowick looks the part of a college wide receiver. He also has the temperament to succeed on the college level and hasn’t shown any freshman jitters.
“That guy is an absolute stud,” Barrows said. “He competes like crazy. One thing that excited me from the jump is how level-headed he is. I think he’s going to be phenomenal in our offense.”
Wilkerson called the freshman from suburban Atlanta “a natural ball catcher” and praised his athletic frame and skill set.
Justin Thomas, WR, Senior
A Michigan native who played the past four seasons at NCAA Division III Albion College, Thomas arrives in Charleston with loads of experience.
He was a four-time all-conference player at Albion and as a senior made the D3Football.com Fourth-Team All-America list. In 2021, he caught 67 passes for 1,113 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“He is a player,” Wilkerson said. “He’s smooth and he will go up and get (the ball).”