When Eastern Illinois opens its spring Ohio Valley Conference season Sunday at UT-Martin, the Panthers will have a key offensive piece that wasn’t in place when they kicked off the 2019 fall campaign.
EIU added talent-laden receiver Isaiah Hill back then, but had to endure the NCAA transfer waiver process. While the governing body weighed its decision, Hill — who transferred from South Dakota State — sat in limbo for the first four EIU games.
“We were banking on getting the waiver,” Hill told Prairie State Pigskin. “I was very excited for the season. I had worked hard all summer. When I first got the news that I wasn’t going to be able to play, it hurt. This is something that I’d waited my whole life for. It was heart-breaking when I found out I wasn’t going to be playing the first four games.”
It’s no secret that FCS transfers often sit deep in a pile under a stack of FBS decisions.
Yet, the former South Dakota State ‘scout team player of the year’ soldiered on.
“What I loved about it was that even when he wasn’t eligible or cleared to play on our offense, he was on our scout team and he was making us better every single day,” said EIU offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski. “That just speaks to his character. He didn’t take that time to sit there and pout. He took the time to get better and make the team better.”
Hill said, “I wasn’t going to let my teammates down. I was going to be the same person that they recruited. I was going to work hard no matter what.”
Hill, a Minooka High School graduate, entered the transfer portal not because he was upset with his time at South Dakota State, but rather because of family situations back in Illinois.
“South Dakota State was a great experience. I loved my coaches and friends there, ” Hill said. “I’m from Joliet. When I entered the portal I really wanted to be closer to my family.”
Kuceyeski picked up the phone and called SDSU defensive line coach and friend Christian Smith.
“Christan said we don’t want him to leave. We’d take a 100 of him,” Kuceyeski said. “He’s leaving because of some things going on at home. He’d be an unbelievable get for you. Knowing that before I even met Isaiah was huge, and then having him on campus for his official visit we really just spent a ton of time together. It was truly about the relationship.”
That relationship was cemented when Hill met EIU receivers coach Mark Philmore II.
“He seemed like one of the coolest people I know,” Hill said. “I felt he was someone I could trust, someone who would be real with me all the time. He’s stayed the same ever since he’s recruited me. All of the coaching staff is very family oriented. I trust them.”
Philmore knew Hill was a special player from day one.
“When he transferred in, he didn’t get the best news in regards to being able to play right away. He didn’t get his waiver from the NCAA. It didn’t stop him at all,” Philmore said. “Two of the four weeks he was unable to play, he was voted as scout team player of the week, one being on offense and the other being on special teams. That shows you right then and there the type of young man that he is.”
When Hill’s waiver was finally granted by the NCAA, the Panthers were opening Ohio Valley Conference play. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder had an immediate impact.
“It doesn’t take an expert to realize his skill set. He’s got a different gear. He can really run and make the plays,” Kuceyeski said.
Philmore added, “He’s internally driven, and he craves for knowledge of the game and how he can improve his skill.”
In his first two OVC games Hill had 14 catches for 88 yards. In his third game he scored touchdowns both rushing and receiving.
Hill followed that up with his true breakout performance Oct. 15 at UT-Martin. He hauled in 15 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown.
Despite playing in just eight games, Hill led EIU with 58 receptions for 571 yards and four touchdowns. He rushed nine times for 26 yards and two more TDs. Hill scored a touchdown in five straight games and was named to the All-OVC Newcomer Team.
Now entering his redshirt junior season, Hill strives to get even better.
“All summer I worked on getting more detail in my routes, getting off the line. My routes are so much more crisp. I worked on getting out of my breaks in three steps or less,” Hill said.
Philmore has pushed him in a number of ways.
“How can he get in and out of his break that much faster? How can it do it in two steps rather than three? With this particular coverage, how can he set up this safety up for this corner route?” the receivers coach and former Northwestern player said. “He’s always craving for knowledge, which as a coach you love.
“And now the big thing for him is being able to take his motor, his want to have success and bring another guy along in the room. Being a leader vocally as well as showing it with his play. Adding the creativity piece, that’s been his biggest improvement from last year to this year.”
Hill also brings what he learned playing with star receiver and NFL prospect Cade Johnson at South Dakota State.
“His work ethic is above everyone else’s. He’s always asking questions. He was an All-American, but he was also the one who was asking questions and setting an example for the younger guys. I try to emulate him,” Hill said.
Special teams standout
Like many teams in college football, Eastern uses many of its top players on special teams. Hill returns both kickoffs and punts.
“When I’m on kick return and punt return I just want to be smart and protect the football. Make the big play when I need to,” Hill said. “I’ve been begging to be put on anything that helps the team, whether it’s to be the gunner or on the kickoff and go down and tackle somebody. I’ll do whatever they need me to do. If I’m going to get to that next level, I’m going to show them what I can do.”
Scouting report focus
After his impressive OVC debut, opposing coaches are very aware of Hill’s big play ability.
“If you watch the film he’s not lining up in the same place every play, so it’s difficult for defenses to be aware of where he is,” Kuceyeski said. “If I’m a defensive coordinator I’m going to help on coverage whether it’s with a linebacker or safety to make sure I’m not in a 1-on-1 scenario, because if they do give us that we’re going to take it every single time. From our standpoint that’s a win based on his athleticism, skill set and ability to make a play.
“You’ve got to be aware of where he is at all points in time.”
Hill knows it isn’t all about his numbers. The more focus he draws from opposing defenses will only help EIU as a team.
“It’s not all about me. It’s about all of the receivers in the room being able to bring something to the table,” he said. “When we’re all playing well and getting open, there’s going to be times when we all eat.”
That eating occurs both on the field from a success standpoint and literally off the field where he rooms with senior quarterback Harry Woodbery and fellow receivers Matt Reyna and Tyler Hamilton.
“We have a good time together, but we all work on getting better. Harry is always throwing the ball to us whether it’s going to the fieldhouse or we’re in the backyard. He likes to make us watch film with him. He points out things about our routes,” Hill said. “We’ve got that camaraderie.”