Editor’s note: This is part two of the annual Prairie State Pigskin series on new faces who likely will play big roles on the field for Illinois FCS teams this fall.
Each day at football practice in Macomb, J.J. Ross gets a workout.
As a junior cornerback for Western Illinois, Ross gets the task of lining up against three of the most productive wide receivers in the country – seniors Tony Tate, Dennis Houston and Dallas Daniels.
“It’s work, I’m not going to lie,” said Ross, a junior who transferred from Eastern Illinois. “Those boys make me better. Hopefully, I make them better. That’s what it’s all about.”
During the spring, WIU’s high-octane passing game featured Tate and Daniels ranking seventh and eighth, respectively, in the FCS in receiving yards. Meanwhile, Houston finished eighth nationally in receptions per game on an offense led by senior quarterback Connor Sampson.
“I’m ready to see it,” Ross said of the WIU offense. “We’ve got all the tools.”
Though the Western passing game had plenty of spring highlights, Ross is one of the fresh faces on defense who will try to revamp a unit that allowed nearly 33 points a game while finishing 1-5.
At EIU, Ross earned third-team Freshman All-American honors from PhilSteele.com after the 2019 season, when he led the team with four interceptions. He played in 18 career games for the Panthers, starting 12 times.
“It was pretty tough leaving my teammates,” he said. “I’m still in touch with them. There’s no bad blood.”
Ross said he entered the transfer portal after the FCS spring season to find a higher level of competition, which he found in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
He will try to improve a secondary that allowed 12.2 yards per catch in the spring and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 70% of their passes against the Leathernecks.
“This conference is the best in the FCS,” he said. “That made it a no-brainer. I wanted to go compete. I love to compete. Going up against bigger and better guys makes it even more exciting.”
Trae Drake, LB, Senior
An Alabama native, Drake started nine games at FCS Southeastern Louisiana in 2019. He finished fourth on the team in tackles that season with 62 total stops, including 33 solos.
Drake is Western’s No. 2 weakside linebacker entering the season opener, where he will back up Greg Benton Jr.
Gaej Walker, RB, Senior
For an offense that gained just over 56 yards on the ground per game during the spring, Walker is a welcome addition to the offense. In the past two years at FBS Western Kentucky, he led the Hilltoppers with 1,208 rushing yards in 2019 and was a preseason Doak Walker Award candidate in 2020. The award is given to the nation’s best running back.
DeJohn Jones, OT, Senior
A transfer from Prairie View A&M, Jones is among several new players on the revamped offensive line. The 6-4, 300-pound Jones will start at left tackle for Western, which averaged 2.5 yards per carry during the spring season.
Jones played in 32 career games at Prairie View and was a preseason second-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference selection in the spring.