Editor’s note: This is the first in our annual four-part Fresh Faces series, highlighting Illinois FCS players who are taking on bigger roles this season. Next: Read about Illinois State on Tuesday.
Jason Lewis never knew what hit him.
As soon as the Eastern Kentucky running back took the handoff in a Nov. 4 game against Eastern Illinois, he ran head on into EIU linebacker Dytarious Johnson. … And Johnson won.
The result was a four-yard loss and plenty of momentum for the Eastern Illinois defense.
Despite playing in a backup role as a freshman last season, Johnson made a powerful impact, punishing ballcarriers and having the team’s fifth-most tackles while bringing plenty of excitement with his big hits.
“It brings a lot of intensity to the team,” said Johnson, who will move into a starting role this season and is one of four key fresh faces for the Panthers. “They love when I hit people. They love the energy. When we get energy from a crowd, our adrenaline picks right back up like at the start of a game.
“It’s very important to me,” he said.
Johnson will bring his 255 pounds of pure thump to the EIU defense when the Panthers open the season Saturday at Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference.
Playing in all 11 games last season was beneficial for Johnson, helping him learn the speed of the college game.
“It gave me more experience,” Johnson said. “I now know the game moves faster. It’s about knowing what you’re supposed to do and trusting your teammates.”
Johnson, who had 53 tackles and two forced fumbles last season, is taking on a bigger role with learning the Panthers’ defense in order to bring less experienced teammates along.
“I have to see more because there are people on the field who didn’t play a lot last year,” he said. “I’ve been learning just like they have.”
Away from the field, Johnson drew plenty of attention for a video on social media of him squatting 800 pounds this off-season in Charleston. The impressive feat drew the awe of teammates and scores of Twitter users.
“I was pretty surprised at first,” Johnson said of the video’s reach. “It was really good for the team.”
Johnson is joined by three other fresh faces this fall.
Iziah Gulley, redshirt sophomore, safety
Gulley started five games last season and had a season-high nine tackles in the season finale against Austin Peay. Despite off-season hand surgery, Gulley is healthy and prepared to be a physical presence in the secondary.
Gulley piled up 45 total tackles last season, including 20 solo stops.
Jamal Scott, junior, running back
Football fans around the country met Scott during Netflix’s popular series “Last Chance U” this spring.
As a sophomore at Independence Community College in Kansas last season, Scott had seven rushing touchdowns and 363 yards. He started and piled up 180 yards in a breakout game against defending national champion Garden City Community College.
Scott will be counted on to give EIU’s new Air Raid attack a healthy run game.
Jonathan McCoy, redshirt freshman, tight end
The 6-foot-8 McCoy will be a huge target down the middle of the field and in the red zone for Eastern’s offense.
He is from the same high school in Arkansas (Camden Fairview) as Gulley and fellow EIU defensive back Corneliuss Page.