Dom Shoffner is one of seven different players to take snaps at quarterback over the past two seasons at Eastern Illinois. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Barry Bottino
The Eastern Illinois football team won a single game in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
So when the Panthers started this fall 2-3 under first-year head coach Chris Wilkerson, there was plenty of enthusiasm in the program about their possibilities.
Then came a rash of injuries, a trio of three-point losses, a six-game losing streak and a 2-9 record. One of those losses, however, was a 34-31 season-ending defeat against Ohio Valley Conference co-champion UT Martin.
“They went toe to toe with the defending league champion. I couldn’t be more proud of their efforts,” said Wilkerson, whose team was missing all 11 opening day offensive starters in the finale because of injuries. “There were a number of young guys that had a lot of opportunities. They continued to work and get better.”
With numerous young players getting some playing time, year two of the Wilkerson era likely will feature new roles for some of Eastern’s newest faces.
Prairie State Pigskin examines five burning questions facing the Panthers in 2023:
What’s ahead at the quarterback position?
Change has been a constant at quarterback for the Panthers. Over the past two seasons, seven different players have taken snaps.
Over those two years, EIU quarterbacks have a 49.2% completion percentage, 24 touchdowns and 32 interceptions. So, pumping up the passing game’s output is a must.
Sophomore Jonah O’Brien, who started eight games this season before an injury sent him to the sidelines for the last three games, showed promise thanks to a big arm and a 64% completion percentage. Six of his nine touchdown passes, however, came in the first three games of the season.
Expect at least one new face at the position – likely an experienced transfer — to join the roster and provide more competition.
Can the defense respond – again – to losing a key piece to the transfer portal?
A year after all-conference linebacker Jason Johnson departed for FBS Central Florida, lightning struck the Panthers again.
Team captain and all-conference linebacker Colin Bohanek, who piled up 200 career tackles, announced he was diving into the portal a day after earning All-OVC honors this week.
Bohanek was a key piece of the defense’s identity and was well-respected by teammates and those around the program.
But without Johnson, Eastern’s defense saw the rise of linebacker/defensive end Elijawah Tolbert, a sophomore who earned first-team all-conference in his first year as a starter. Tolbert had 70 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
Developing linebackers is something the Panthers have been historically good at as a program. Next season, they’ll have to do it again.
Will the real EIU running game please stand up?
After a season in which quarterbacks Dom Shoffner and Jonah O’Brien led the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, the Panthers’ ground game needs a serious overhaul.
Eastern’s last running back to rush for more than 500 yards a season was Isaiah Johnson (708) in 2018. The Panthers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Devin Church ran for 1,066 yards in 2016.
Injuries have definitely played a role, but so have depth issues and struggles along the offensive line (33 sacks allowed).
The Panthers’ coaches have high hopes for freshman M.J. Flowers, who played in four games as a true freshman. Sophomore Kendi Young also has shown bursts of talent, along with redshirt freshman Zeke Lewis, a 220-pound back from Decatur. Adding an experienced back in the off-season could benefit the young group of returnees.
A stronger running game also will help the Panthers improve their lagging time of possession numbers. This season, Eastern ranked next-to-last in the OVC at 28 minutes, 53 seconds.
Did the Take 25 initiative make an impact?
Eastern defensive coordinator Adam Gristick explained in the spring how a vast majority of the nation’s playoff teams collect at least 25 turnovers a year.
The Panthers ended the season 2-9 and with a six-game losing streak. But they did manage to pile up 20 turnovers, including the second-highest number of interceptions in the conference (13). Gristick, however, will probably remember at least five interceptions that were dropped. That included two at Northern Illinois that could have been game-changing plays.
The Take 25 slogan gave Eastern an identity and a goal to build around.
In order to reach 25 turnovers next season, an improved pass rush will make a big difference. Eastern’s 16 sacks were the second-fewest in the OVC and tied for 105th nationally.
Does Eastern return the best group of specialists in the OVC?
The answer is clearly yes, simply by looking at this week’s all-conference teams.
Kicker Stone Galloway and punter Trey Wilhoit were first-team selections.
Galloway started the season with a streak of 10 consecutive field goals made, while Wilhoit’s 44-yard punting average ranked fifth in the nation.
Underclassmen Jack Valente (long snapper), Mark Aitken (kickoff returner) and Cooper Willman (punt returner) all made second-team all-conference.
The impact this group made for the Panthers was unmistakable. When the 2023 season kicks off in September, they give Eastern a strong foundation for a solid special teams unit.