Eastern Illinois ‘attacking’ spring practice in second year under Wilkerson

With winter workouts completed, Eastern Illinois players and coaches are in the midst of spring practice which culminates with the annual spring game April 22 at O’Brien Field in Charleston. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

By Dan Verdun

With a year under their belt, Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson and his staff don’t want to just move the program forward. They want to “attack”.

That’s the word you’ll hear over and over around the Panther football facilities in Charleston this spring.

“It has been an amazing, exciting winter,” Wilkerson told Prairie State Pigskin last week. “Our players and coaches have worked really, really hard and earned the opportunity to attack this spring practice and take advantage of these 15 practices to get better.”

Newly named defensive coordinator Clay Bignell told MontanaSports.com he wants his Panthers to “attack, create chaos, create turnovers, get the ball back.”

A year ago, Wilkerson and his staff were in a bit of a scrambling spring mode featured a mostly inherited roster with a few mid-year transfers sprinkled in.

This March and April brings added numbers in the form of returning players, mid-year transfers and walk-ons. According to Wilkerson, EIU has 103 players on the spring practice roster.

“It’s nice to start with 20 offensive linemen in the room. We’ll be adding five first-year guys in the fall, so we’ll have 25 come day one of preseason,” he said. “To start with 20 on the roster is certainly a much better place than we have been.”

Depth certainly benefits any team in any sport. A year ago a promising 2-3 start was undone in part by mounting injuries. As a result, the Panthers slipped into a season-ending six-game losing streak.

Changes & challenges

Wilkerson chose Bignell to take charge of the Panther defense when previous coordinator Adam Gristick left for a position with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.

Bignell, a two-time All-Big Sky Conference linebacker selection at Montana State in his playing days, coached safeties and served as EIU defensive pass game coordinator last season.

“Clay Bignell is, in my opinion, one of the brightest young up-and-coming coaches that I’ve been around in a long, long time. He’s been around some of the cutting edge guys, if you will, at the major college level the last few years. He really sees the game in great detail,” Wilkerson said.

Bignell’s defense will be without its top two tacklers from a year ago. Safety Jordan Vincent transferred to FBS New Mexico State and linebacker Colin Bohanek headed to FCS Southern Illinois in the off-season. Defensive linemen Tim Varga and Jordan Miles also transferred out.

(Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

“Sometimes the grass seems greener and guys want to bet on themselves and jump in and try to play FBS football,” Wilkerson said. “One went up (to that level), all the others ended up at the FCS level. Is it a better situation for them and their families? I guess time will tell. 

“Some of those that were productive players for us may have stayed (last year) because we asked them, but (a year later), to them, it was time to move on. I can’t speak for those guys. We don’t wish them any ill will, but we are excited about the guys that are here and want to be here.”

Offensive lineman and long snapper Jack Valente is one such player. The junior from Batavia recognizes team leadership and responsibility doesn’t just fall on the coaching staff.

“We (as players) always had that self-accountability,” Valente said. “It’s about not only being able to say ‘hey, I messed up’ but also being able to pull someone aside and say with love ‘hey, you need to work on this’ or ‘hey, this is wrong, and you need to get better’. So it’s personal accountability as well as having accountability toward your teammates to make everybody better.”

Offensive approach

Meanwhile, Joe Davis returns for his second year as offensive coordinator. The Panthers showed growth under his leadership last season.

Davis, who has 10 years of experience as a coordinator, is ready for the Panther offense to continue its upward trend.

“We certainly want to take a big step when it comes to execution,” Davis said. “When we came in last year as a staff we were trying to get to know the players, establish relationships, evaluate the talent and the depth of the roster. We feel like we’ve come a long way since a year ago.

“Moving forward we want to continue to work on that execution and consistency that it takes to be a high-level FCS offense.”

The EIU roster has six quarterbacks, spearheaded by redshirt junior Jonah O’Brien. The 6-foot-4 Bartlett High School graduate won the starting job for last fall’s opener at FBS Northern Illinois and played well in a one-touchdown loss to the Huskies in DeKalb.

(Photo by EIUPanthers.com)

However, an injury shelved O’Brien eight games into the season.

“Jonah O’Brien is cleared and ready to go,” Davis said. “Jonah has all the physical tools you would want in a quarterback at this level. He’s got great size. He has speed and delivery. He’s smart; he’s tough. He’s way more athletic than you think he would be.”

Two transfers appear to have the best shot at challenging O’Brien this spring.

Colorado native Pierce Holley started 11 games during the 2022 season for Georgetown University. The 6-foot-2 Holley passed for 2,882 yards and 18 touchdowns while earning second team All-Patriot League honors.

“We think his best football is still ahead of him. He has two years of eligibility left. He’s been very, very impressive thus far in the off-season,” Davis said.

Terrance Gipson, who began his career at SMU, transferred to EIU from East Los Angeles College where he threw for 1,776 yards and 18 touchdowns while rushing for 401 yards and eight touchdowns.

“He was initially brought here as an athlete, but just getting to know him we thought let’s put him into this quarterback competition and see exactly how it plays out,” Davis said.

The three remaining EIU quarterbacks are walk-ons from Chicago area high school programs: Kevin Conway (Providence Catholic), Justin Kowalak (Crystal Lake South) and James Cooper, Jr. (Harlem).

News & notes

Former EIU player and cornerbacks coach DJ Bland takes over as defensive passing game coordinator. He will also be the recruiting coordinator.

Assistant Collin Geier will move from outside linebackers coach to inside linebackers coach, while Andrew Brady was hired as the outside linebackers coach. Former Iowa graduate assistant Jordan Walsh joined the EIU staff and will coach tight ends.

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