Linebacker Elijawah Tolbert (1) returns to lead the Eastern Illinois defense after being named All-Ohio Valley Conference last fall. (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)
By Dan Verdun
CHARLESTON – If the Eastern Illinois defense is going to meet with success in 2023, perhaps the keys lie in a more sizable line and the return of important players plagued by past injuries.
“We emphasized fundamentals. We emphasized trying to play a little tougher football, specifically being more physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Our defense has really gotten a lot better,” EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson told Prairie State Pigskin after last weekend’s spring game.
Certainly Wilkerson, a former Panther defensive lineman himself, knows the importance of the point of attack.
“We’re doing a better job of changing the leverage on the edge and perimeter of the defense as well as the back end or the vertical part, (defending) the deep ball,” the second-year head coach said.
The Panthers brought in 13 mid-year transfers including linemen Alex Alteus (Stetson University), Zed Asowata (Midwestern State) and Nicholas Oliveira-Chace (Franklin Pierce College).
The Panther defense is now under the direction of Clay Bignell, who took over as coordinator when Adam Gristick departed Charleston in early March for a position with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.
Bignell was hired by Wilkerson in Feb. 2022 to coach safeties and serve as defensive pass game coordinator.
“It was a little bit of a whirlwind at the start. It happened fast in terms of getting everything together,” said Bignell of being promoted.
Whirlwind or not, Wilkerson praised what Bignell – a former two-time All-Big Sky Conference linebacker in his playing days at Montana State – has done thus far.
“He’s done a phenomenal job with the defense,” Wilkerson said.
While the Panthers lost four key defensive starters to the transfer portal this past winter; those that remain are optimistic about EIU’s fortunes under Bignell.
“It’s been a smooth transition. Coach Bignell is a genius. He’s one of the smartest football guys I’ve ever been around. He’s made it easy for us,” said linebacker Anthony Shockey.
“At the end of the day, I believe defense is defense,” said safety Kaelin Drakeford. “Verbal communication is different, but we stayed within the system with Coach Wilkerson promoting Coach Bignell. It’s a little change, but nothing that we haven’t been able to adjust to. It’s communication and pursuit to the football. It’s pretty much the same game.
“Things aren’t a whole lot different, but the (personnel) packages have changed a little bit, so it’s just getting the guys used to the new terminology. They caught on pretty quickly. There’s only so much you can do on defense anyway, so it’s not a ton different, but it’s structured a touch differently.”
Bouncing back from injury
Both Shockey and Drakeford and suffered through injury-plagued seasons a year ago. Both are ready to put that in the past and move forward.
Shockey, a redshirt junior who played at Glenbard East High School in Lombard, has been riddled by injuries the past two seasons. The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder is expected to play major minutes this fall.
“I feel great, better than I did before I was hurt,” Shockey said.
Shockey has appeared in 23 games in his collegiate career, including all 12 his freshman season. He has spent time both as a reserve linebacker and as a special teams player.
Drakeford, meanwhile, said, “I’m feeling good. This is my first real spring ball at Eastern without any injuries.”
Drakeford, listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, used his redshirt season under the NCAA participation rule after playing in just four games last fall. After making nine starts as a freshman in 2021, Drakeford got hurt in the season opener at Northern Illinois. He returned to play three games late in the season.
“I made it all 15 practices with the help of my coaches, trainers and strength coaches,” the redshirt sophomore said. “I’m blessed to be healthy, and I’m ready to stay healthy.”
Where things stand
As April wraps up and spring ball is over, EIU eyes summer workouts and preseason camp leading up to the Aug. 31 season opener at Indiana State.
“We continue to get better, but there’s still a lot to clean up,” Wilkerson said.
Bignell added, “Everybody in the country is trying to get better, so we’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity. Keep refining the football and focus on our fundamentals and skills and hit the fall running.
“We’ve got veteran guys in important spots. Having those guys out there, ones who have been through multiple defenses, they can communicate and get everyone on the same page. Especially with Deuce (safety Mark Aitken) and Kaelin in the back end and ET (linebacker Elijawah Tolbert) in the middle. It’s been nice to be able to lean on those guys.”
Aitken, a redshirt junior from Chicago’s Kenwood Academy, earned second team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors as kick returner in 2022. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Aitken began his career at FBS Northern Illinois before transferring to EIU in 2021.
“Mark has played corner, nickel and safety. Now we know he’s going to be a guy for us at safety. He’s been an awesome kick returner,” Wilkerson said.
Tolbert, listed at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, was named All-Ohio Valley Conference first team last fall.
After posting a season-high 11 tackles at NIU in the opener, Tolbert finished the year ranked third on team in tackles (70), including 32 solo stops. He was named OVC Defensive Player of the Week on Sept. 25 after a league-opening win at Murray State.
With the departure of the four transfers from last season’s starting lineup, two of whom were captains, Tolbert sees an added responsibility this year.
“I’m obviously in a leadership role because I had success last year. I try my hardest to be first in everything and give my teammates someone to look up to,” he said.
Tolbert’s advice to those teammates?
“Pursuit. Even if someone makes a mistake, run to the ball. Forget about the mistakes and just keep playing every down,” he said.
News & notes
The defense won Saturday’s spring game, 39-28, under a modified scoring system. It gained four turnovers with two fumble recoveries and two interceptions, both by redshirt sophomore safety Collin Tyson . . . At the conclusion of the game, Wilkerson announced Aitken and offensive lineman Chad Strickland as team captains. “Those two guys are all about what Eastern Illinois stands for with the pride and with the toughness. The hard hat, lunch pail, blue collar mentality. They’re guys who have been very productive players here,” Wilkerson said . . . Following consecutive games on the road at Indiana State and FBS opponent Bowling Green, EIU opens its home schedule hosting Illinois State in the non-conference Mid-America Classic rivalry game Sept. 16. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.