EIU running back Juwon Farri, a transfer from Monmouth, gets a hug Saturday from offensive lineman Elkhanan Tanelus after Farri’s TD run in the Panthers’ spring game. (Photo by Barry Bottino, PrairieStatePigskin.com)
By Barry Bottino
CHARLESTON – When the Eastern Illinois offense was soaring with Tony Romo in 2002 and Jimmy Garoppolo in 2013, the future NFL quarterbacks triggered aerial attacks that led to them both winning the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player in FCS.
Romo and Garoppolo had another key weapon in common during their award-winning seasons – an impactful running game.
While three candidates for the EIU starting quarterback job in 2023 showcased their talents at Saturday’s spring game, head coach Chris Wilkerson said the eventual No. 1 QB will benefit from some new faces in the backfield.
“When Tony was here, they were very efficient running the football,” Wilkerson said. “That made it a little easier. Even with Jimmy’s numbers, they were very efficient running the ball as well. So, we’ve got to be balanced.”
This fall, the Panthers (2-9 last season) will benefit from two transfers, Monmouth’s Juwon Farri and Northern Arizona’s Kevin Daniels, along with returnee MJ Flowers. Fellow returnee Ty Schultz, a redshirt freshman, also played extensively Saturday.
“We feel like we’ve got a pair and a spare, at least, in our backfield,” Wilkerson said.
In 2022, Romo threw for 3,149 yards and had EIU Hall of Famer J.R. Taylor by his side. Taylor rushed for 1,522 yards — the third-best single-season effort in school history – and a school-record 18 TDs.
When Garoppolo racked up 5,112 yards in 2013, Shepard Little ran for 1,551 yards and 15 TDs.
Over the past four seasons, EIU hasn’t had a leading rusher reach 500 yards, including last fall, when quarterback Dom Shoffner ran for 425 yards.
On the ground
The 5-foot-8, 205-pound Farri rushed for more than 2,800 yards and 28 touchdowns at Monmouth over his career and is appreciative of the new opportunity at Eastern.
“This is my last year,” he said. “I’m trying to compete, trying to make a name for myself, before I take my chances at the pros.”
He had a long scoring run in Saturday’s game, which was won by the defense, 39-28, over the offense.
“I’m proud of the way we played, and I’m proud of the chemistry we’re building together,” said Farri, who noted that he offers the offense plenty of versatility. “I’m pretty balanced. They can use me anywhere they need to.”
The 6-2, 225-pound Daniels, who did not play in the spring after having his 2022 season at Northern Arizona cut short by injury, rushed for 1,146 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021.
Flowers, a redshirt freshman, rushed for 132 yards in four games last season, but he sustained an injury early on Saturday and was held out the remainder of the game.
Offensive coordinator Joe Davis said the Panthers’ run game has improved in two key areas.
“This is the second year in the system,” he said. “It’s created a lot more comfortability. And we’ve improved the size of the offensive line through some transfers and training. The depth and size of the offensive line was a concern when we took over here last year.”
Eastern welcomed three transfer offensive linemen – two from junior college powerhouse Iowa Western Community College and one from NCAA Division II – to the roster in January. In addition, the Panthers announced the signing of two other juco offensive linemen in their December recruiting class.
“We know we’ve got to continue to develop and to move people off the line of scrimmage and keep our quarterback upright,” Wilkerson said.
Through the air
Three contenders for the starting quarterback job, including returning starter Jonah O’Brien, played extensively Saturday at O’Brien Field.
All three, including Georgetown transfer Pierce Holley and former East Los Angeles College QB Terrance Gipson, led a touchdown drive.
“That was encouraging to see, and that battle is going to continue into the fall,” Davis said. “We feel good about those three guys. They all bring something a little bit different to the table but are all smart, hard-working, team-first guys.”
O’Brien started EIU’s first eight games last season before an injury ended his season.
Holley connected with rising sophomore Justin Bowick on a 48-yard scoring pass Saturday, while Gipson ran for a 13-yard score.
“Fans should be looking forward to a fast offense that is going to score a lot of points,” Holley said. “The spring, for me, was all about improvement, all about getting the playbook down and (creating) chemistry with the guys.”
The eventual winner of the QB derby, according to Davis, will need to extend drives and curb turnovers.
Last season, Eastern played five different quarterbacks, who combined for 16 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing scores. But they also threw 15 interceptions to go along with the team’s nine lost fumbles.
“As long as we protect the football, we’ve got a great shot to continue to be in football games,” Davis said. “With the schedule we start with (in the fall), there’s not going to be a lot of room for error. We’re going to have to be really sharp protecting the football, and that starts with that guy at quarterback.”
EIU opens the season Aug. 31 at Indiana State before a trip to FBS Bowling Green Sept. 9 and its home opener Sept. 16 against Illinois State.
Up next: Dan Verdun looks at the EIU defense, which put together a strong effort in the spring game, later this week.