Sophomore safety Nick Coates is EIU’s fourth-leading tackler this season in his new role as a starter at safety. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Barry Bottino
No matter the down and distance or the game situation, Nick Coates has become a consistent presence on the Eastern Illinois defense.
“He’s what I would consider our iron man,” EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson said. “He’s a guy who’s played upwards of a hundred snaps in certain games. He certainly hasn’t come off the field very much, if at all, during the entire season.”
As a first-year starter at safety, Coates is the team’s fourth-leading tackler and has impacted games in a number of ways. He has contributed three tackles for loss, four pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
His career at Eastern began as a cornerback who played special teams as a freshman last season.
“I was just sitting back and waiting for my opportunity,” said Coates, who played high school football at Louisville (Ky.) Male, one of the nation’s winningest programs of all-time. “Seeing these opportunities explode in front of my face is pretty cool.”
Playing special teams allowed Coates to get used to the speed of the college game.
Now, he helps set the pace for Eastern’s defense.
“The thing that is consistent with him is he’s going a hundred miles an hour,” Wilkerson said. “He’s a runner and a hitter. He’s a football player. Those guys, you can always find a place for them.”
Coates’ place Saturday will be with the Panthers in Lake Charles, La. As part of the Ohio Valley Conference-Southland Conference scheduling alliance, the Panthers (2-6) play a late-season non-conference game against McNeese State (1-7). Both teams are looking to solve recent losing streaks.
Eastern has lost three games in a row after a 2-3 start, while McNeese is in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
Coates has started seven games for the Panthers at the Fox position after converting from cornerback.
“It was cool being able to get into a new position and learn a whole different role,” Coates said. “It’s fun being able to fly around and hit people and also getting back in coverage. The rewarding part is to get to go out there and makes some plays with my teammates.”
Coates’ production has impressed others.
“Nick is a guy who has really stepped up for us,” EIU linebacker Colin Bohanek said. “He just keeps working to get better every day.”
Hard work is something Coates knows well.
Winter and spring conditioning is an important part of his preparation, along with two workouts a day during the summer.
“He’s very much been a self-made player,” Wilkerson said. “He’s a guy that takes very good care of himself in the off-season.”
Handling 100 snaps a game on fall Saturdays is easier because of that off-season work.
“I’m conditioning year-round,” he said. “That’s just second nature for me.”
The quarterback position likely will look different today for Eastern. Sophomore starter Jonah O’Brien left last week’s game at halftime with a concussion and is “day to day,” according to Wilkerson.
Since senior backup Dom Shoffner was out with a laceration to his non-throwing hand last week, that left Eastern with redshirt freshman Zach Weir to finish a 20-17 loss to Tennessee Tech.
On this week’s depth chart, Shoffner is listed as the starter with Weir as the backup.
This week’s opponent
McNeese’s biggest struggles have come on defense, where they rank 109th nationally in total defense (457 yards per game) and 107th in scoring defense (36.9 points a game). The Cowboys have been particularly weak against the run, allowing 215.4 yards a game (111th nationally) and 17 rushing touchdowns. … Senior QB Walker Wood threw two interceptions last week in his first start of the season. Previous starter Knox Kadum, a sophomore, has thrown 10 interceptions compared to six TDs. … McNeese senior running back Deonta McMahon is coming off a 97-yard, three-touchdown game last week. He has a Southland-leading 761 yards on the ground and nine rushing touchdowns.
(Kickoff: 7 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: WEIU.net/HitMix)
Key matchup to watch
EIU run defense vs. McNeese RB Deonta McMahon: Eastern has not allowed a 100-yard rusher for eight straight games. But here comes McMahon, a senior who leads the Southland Conference in rushing yards (761), yards per game (95.1) and yards per carry (6.5). He earned the Louisiana Sportswriters Association Offensive Player of the Week honor Monday after rushing for 97 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-27 loss to nationally ranked Southeastern Louisiana.
What’s at stake?
Eastern has three games remaining to try to win its third game of the season. The Panthers won three games combined in the past three seasons.
Nose tackle Colby Smith became the seventh different player to intercept a pass this season for EIU when he snared a screen pass out of the air against Tennessee Tech. The Panthers rank seventh in the FCS with 12 interceptions and 10th in turnovers gained (17). … Eastern kicker Stone Galloway’s streak of 14 consecutive made field goals dating back to last season is the longest in the OVC in the past 20 years. He is 10-for-10 this fall and is one of only two FCS kickers to have remained perfect this late in the season. … EIU sophomore running back Jaelin Benefield rushed for a season-best 79 yards last week, putting him over 1,100 for his career. He currently ranks 28th on Eastern’s career rushing list.