As a standout defensive lineman at Lake Geneva’s Badger High School in Wisconsin, Josh Doyle knew exactly where he wanted to play college ball.
“I love Northern Illinois,” Doyle said. “It was my dream school coming out of high school.”
The Huskies provided a winning Mid-American Conference program only 60 miles from where Doyle grew up. However, the dream turn took a sharp turn in a different direction.
At 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Doyle will start at right tackle on the Eastern Illinois offensive line when the FCS Panthers (1-0) travel to NIU (0-1), an FBS member, in his return to NIU.
Doyle admits he wasn’t completely prepared to begin his college career in 2014, when he redshirted in DeKalb.
“At that time in my life, it just wasn’t the right place for me,” Doyle said. “I had surgery on my shoulder coming out of high school. I gained some weight. I was out of shape. I really wasn’t ready to go into Division I football.
“When I got to Northern, I wasn’t in the best place,” Doyle said. “I had to leave and find myself.”
After his redshirt year, Doyle reached out to a friend in Charleston, current EIU linebacker Jareem Fleming, his former roommate and teammate at Northern.
“I gave him a call and he said, ‘You’re going to love it here,’” Doyle said. “I’m really happy here at Eastern.”
Football in reverse
Doyle arrived just before fall camp in 2015 and worked with the defensive line before making the switch to offense.
“I’ve been a defensive tackle my whole life,” Doyle said. “It’s kind of like playing football backwards. That was hard for me. I was always trying to get the quarterback. Now I’m always backpedaling to protect the quarterback.”
The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Doyle, a junior, took over the right tackle job this season from Evan Kanz, a four-year starter at Eastern. Doyle is the only new starter this season on a veteran EIU offensive line.
“I’ve been watching a lot of film on Evan,” Doyle said. “He was a mentor for me last season. I called him before our first game for some advice.”
Prepping for NIU
Eastern beat Indiana State, 22-20, but the Panthers allowed five sacks and rushed for only 2.3 yards a carry against an aggressive Sycamores defense.
“We’ve got to get better at running the football,” EIU head coach Kim Dameron said. “We gave up five sacks, but not all of those were the fault of the offensive line. We have to make sure we’re in a position that the defense is not knocking No. 13 (EIU quarterback Mitch Kimble) down.”
Doyle graded his performance as “all right, but there’s always room for improvement,” he said. “They were bringing seven guys most of the game, so that definitely prepared our O-line for this Northern Illinois defense. They’re quick guys and they’re probably going to shoot the gaps after seeing the film of us last weekend.”
Some of those NIU defenders remain close friends of Doyle. This summer, for example, he hosted pal Herlandez Corley, a junior defensive tackle, in Wisconsin.
“He would come out on the boat with us,” Doyle said. “It was nice.”
The thought of seeing friends like Corley and being back in DeKalb has made Doyle eager for kickoff.
“My emotions are pretty high,” he said. “I’ve definitely got a little feeling in my stomach knowing it’s Northern Illinois. It’d be great to go in there and get a win. I can’t wait.”
Eastern Illinois at Northern Illinois, 2:30 p.m. Saturday in DeKalb. Game will air on ESPN3.com and Hit Mix 88.9 FM (online at WEIU.net/hitmix)
Three key matchups
- EIU defensive line vs. NIU offensive line: The FBS Huskies outweigh their FCS counterparts by 35.1 pounds per man up front and should have a weighty advantage in the run game.
- Eastern run game vs. NIU front seven: The Panthers managed only 2.3 yards a carry last week against Indiana State. In a loss to Boston College last week, NIU allowed only 2.96 yards a carry.
- Ryan Graham vs. EIU defense: The Panthers face a tall task as a unit against the NIU junior quarterback. Graham passed for 190 yards and two touchdowns against Boston College. He also rushed for a team-high 99 yards, including a 60-yard scamper.
The last time EIU visited DeKalb, Eastern quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo shredded NIU for 450 yards and six touchdowns in the Huskies’ 43-39 victory Sept. 21, 2013. Garoppolo went on to win the Walter Payton Award as the nation’s top player in FCS.