Tall task awaits alum’s coaching debut as EIU plays at FBS Northern Illinois

First-year Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson (left), shown here with athletic director Tom Michael (right), will lead his Panthers into Thursday night’s matchup at Northern Illinois. (Photo by DailyEasternNews.com)

By Dan Verdun

Former Eastern Illinois player and assistant Chris Wilkerson makes his head coaching debut for his alma mater Thursday night in DeKalb against the defending Mid-American Conference champion.

“Certainly, we’re just ready to play,” Wilkerson said during Tuesday’s Ohio Valley Conference Zoom call.

Wilkerson was hired by EIU in January, replacing former Northwestern assistant Adam Cushing. Wilkerson played for the Panthers from 1991-94. He began his coaching career on the staff of Bob Spoo, who coached for 25 seasons in Charleston.

“It is absolutely, unequivocally an honor and a privilege to lead this program, this institution,” Wilkerson said. “It’s a place that impacted my life so greatly. I just want to do right by the program, right by our players and give us a chance to restore our place as one of the premier FCS programs in the country.”

Wilkerson spent the last nine seasons at the University of Chicago where the Maroons enjoyed one of the most successful runs in program history under his leadership.

Wilkerson posted a 51-27 overall record, including a 39-15 mark against conference opponents. His .654 winning percentage is the highest of UChicago football’s modern era (1969-present) and the second-highest overall since the team’s inception in 1892.

This week’s opponent

Northern Illinois, coached by NIU alum Thomas Hammock, is the preseason favorite in the MAC West. (7 p.m. kickoff, TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: link available through EIUPanthers.com)

One matchup to watch

The NIU offense is powered by sophomore running backs Mason Blakemore, Antario Brown and Harrison Waylee. That trio poses a significant challenge to EIU’s defensive front.

“They are one of the most efficient running football teams in the country,” Wilkerson said of NIU. “Their offensive line is super big and physical; their tight ends are massive.”

Quick hits

Wilkerson has not publicly named Thursday’s starting quarterback. Senior transfer Dom Shoffner, redshirt sophomore Jonah O’Brien and reshirt freshman Zach Weir are the top contenders to go under center for the Panthers . . . Eastern will receive $335,000 in a guaranteed payout from NIU, according to HeroSports.com . . . The Huskies claimed their sixth MAC title last season after turning in one of the best turnaround seasons in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). NIU posted a nine-win season after going 0-6 during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, becoming the first FBS program to win its league championship game one year after going winless.

What’s at stake?

EIU hasn’t won its season opener since 2017 when the Panthers slipped past Indiana State 22-20. That also marked the last time Eastern posted a winning season.

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