First-year starter Tolbert quickly up to speed for Eastern Illinois defense

Eastern Illinois linebacker Elijawah Tolbert (43) played special teams last year as a freshman. This fall, he is thriving as a starter. (Photo by Sandy King, EIU)

By Barry Bottino

Elijawah Tolbert spent his first year at Eastern Illinois playing special teams and watching star linebacker Jason Johnson make plays for the Panthers.

With Johnson transferring to Central Florida after last season, Tolbert did his best to imitate his mentor when the Panthers beat Murray State, 35-21, on Sept. 24 to break an eight-game losing streak.

Elijawah Tolbert

“What I pulled from Jason was just relentless effort,” Tolbert said. “He always had relentless effort, no matter if he was on the other side of the field or wherever he was. He was always flying to the ball.”

Tolbert earned Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort against Murray, when he grabbed two interceptions for the first time at any level of play in his football career. He also had six tackles and three pass breakups for EIU (1-3).

The Panthers, who had a bye last week, return to the field Oct. 8 with a home game against Northwestern State.

Contributing last fall as a freshman provided valuable training for Tolbert, who played prep football at Hillcrest High School in south suburban Country Club Hills.

“That definitely helped me, being able to get on the field as a freshman,” he said. “It helped me get a feeling for the speed of the game. I sat behind Jason and was able to learn a lot from him and Coach Gristick (EIU defensive coordinator Adam Gristick). It helped me improve as a player overall.”

Tolbert ranks second on the team with 31 tackles and is tied for the team lead in pass breakups.

With three interceptions in four games, Tolbert has the most in a season by an EIU player since J.J. Ross picked off four passes in 2019. Tolbert’s performance against Murray State was just the boost that he and the Panthers needed with seven games left on the schedule.

“It gives me the confidence to know that I can go out there and make plays,” he said. “For the team, it gives us confidence because this was (head coach Chris Wilkerson’s) first W, and it was a conference W, so it was a big game for us.”

This week’s opponent

Northwestern State (2-3) has won two games in a row and faces EIU as part of the Southland Conference’s scheduling alliance with the Ohio Valley Conference. The Demons have used two quarterbacks this season, sophomore Zachary Clement and senior Miles Fallin, who have combined to throw nine touchdowns and six interceptions. … Northwestern State’s defense has been a sore spot. The Demons allowed 127 points while starting the season 0-3. The defense is giving up 43.2 points per game and has allowed 26 touchdowns, including 16 through the air. Sophomore linebacker Jared Pedraza (36 tackles, five tackles for loss) is the team leader in both categories.

(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN3; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

EIU wide receivers vs. NW State secondary: How generous are the Demons against opposing pass games? They rank 119th among 123 FCS teams at 313.8 yards a game. That could make for big days from Panthers such as Justin Thomas, Nile Hill and Jaelin Benefield.

What’s at stake?

The Panthers are seeking back-to-back wins for the first time since 2017, when they won four consecutive games, beating Southeast Missouri, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and Murray State.

Quick hits

Sophomore punter Trey Wilhoit ranks seventh nationally with a 45 yards per punt average. Among his 17 punts, Wilhoit has six of 50 yards or more and four that have been downed inside the opposing 20-yard line. … Stone Galloway, EIU’s junior kicker, is 6-for-6 this season on field goals and 9-for-9 on PATs. His 27 points this season leads Eastern in scoring. … Eastern’s defense set a goal this season of forcing 25 turnovers. Through four games, they have nine (seven interceptions, two fumbles). They are currently on target for 19 turnovers forced.

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