First-year coach & EIU alum Wilkerson focuses on connection with players during spring practice

Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson has returned to his alma mater to lead the Panthers. (photo courtesy Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

Chris Wilkerson hits a milestone birthday next month, yet the Eastern Illinois football coach got perhaps his best present in January when he was hired by his alma mater.

Wilkerson, who turns 50 in April, played for the Panthers from 1991-94, earning his degree from EIU in 1995. He began his coaching career on the staff of Bob Spoo, serving as an assistant coach from 1995 through 2001.

Wilkerson returns to Charleston after a successful run as head coach in Division III at the University of Chicago, where he has posted winning seasons in seven of his eight seasons.

The former EIU offensive lineman has his work cut out for him. The Panthers have not had a winning season since 2017 and have not made the FCS playoffs since 2015. Moreover, EIU has just three wins in its last 29 games over a three-year span, including the Covid-19 spring of 2021.

“We are certainly a work in progress,” Wilkerson told Prairie State Pigskin Saturday in his office at O’Brien Field. “The most important thing in the short-term is trying to connect with the players. It’s building relationships, it’s establishing trust (with the players). And it’s them earning our trust.”

Spring practice began March 22

Wilkerson’s Panthers are in the early stages of spring practice, which culminates with the annual spring game scheduled for Saturday, April 23 at O’Brien Field.

“Certainly I did inherit one of the younger football teams in FCS, but the good news is that we’ve got 86 players practicing out there right now,” Wilkerson said. “When I was hired, we had 86 and as of today (March 26), we have 86.”

EIU, like every team playing in Division I these days, lost players in the transfer portal. Most notably was linebacker Jason Johnson, who led the Ohio Valley Conference in tackles last season and has since transferred to FBS Central Florida.

Freshman quarterback Otto Kuhns, who made the majority of starts for EIU last fall, also transferred out.

Meanwhile, Wilkerson’s staff landed three high school players and nine transfers on February’s National Signing Day. Those dozen players are added to a Panther recruiting class that included 16 players inked during the early signing period in December. 

“The players have been extremely resilient,” Wilkerson said. “They’ve been positive. They’ve been energetic. They’ve been very enthusiastic. I have been very pleased with what I have seen at this point.

“We are very aware that there is work to do and there is a long way to go before we get to early September (when EIU opens its season at FBS Northern Illinois).”

Positional battles

As the Panthers install their offensive and defensive schemes this spring, the players will be vying to catch the staff’s eyes.

Wilkerson said EIU appears to be deepest at running back where the Panthers return their top four rushers from a year ago. He would like to see more depth added to the offensive line.

There is a competition at quarterback. South Bend native and University of Virginia transfer Ira Armstead II is a dual-threat option. A former three-star recruit by ESPN.com and 247sports.com, the sophomore is listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds.

Zach Weir is the lone returnee to have thrown passes in games at EIU. The redshirt freshman from Grafton, Wisc. completed 32-of-66 throws in 2021. He had one touchdown and was intercepted four times.

In his lone start, Weir threw for 296 yards on 26-of-49 passing against Austin Peay.

Bartlett native Jonah O’Brien has returned to EIU after a stint at Colorado State. O’Brien, a redshirt sophomore, began 2019 as the EIU scout team quarterback but played the final home game of the season against Southeast Missouri , completing 12-of-21 pass attempts for 84 yards and one interception.

Freshman Kevin Conway, who played quarterback and safety at Providence Catholic High School and attended Diamond Football Academy prep school in Happy, Texas in the fall, transferred into EIU this semester.

EIU’s defense played fairly well a season ago, but often spent too much time on the field because the offense regularly struggled to maintain drives.

Wilkerson likes what he has seen in the secondary.

“We’re pretty solid back there to the point that we’re giving practice reps to some of the guys we want to get a closer look at now,” he said.

Panther pride

Wilkerson is the first EIU graduate to be named head coach of the Panthers. He is joined by others on his staff.

Adam Gristick, who served as EIU linebackers coach since 2018, has taken over as defensive coordinator. Gristick, a Pennsylvania native, was a starter for EIU in 2012-14 making 194 career tackles with 20 tackles for loss and three interceptions. He was a key part of EIU’s back-to-back OVC titles and playoff teams.

Cornerbacks coach DJ Bland, a De La Salle Institute graduate, joined Gristick on those Panther playoff teams from a decade ago.

Outside linebackers coach Colin Geier was an EIU graduate assistant who got his master’s degree in Charleston. Former Panther offensive lineman Cole Hoover, whose father was an assistant coach under Spoo, remains with the program as a graduate assistant.

Associate head coach and specials teams coordinator Kyle Derickson hails from Barrington and spent last season with Wilkerson at the University of Chicago. Derickson will also coach wide receivers.

“His family graduated from here,” Wilkerson said. “His dad played basketball at Eastern.

“There are a lot of ties on our staff to Eastern Illinois. The kids have already realized that our enthusiasm for Eastern Illinois is very authentic,” Wilkerson continued. “I have always said from the moment I walked here on campus 33 years ago on a recruiting visit that the difference here is the people.

“There will be places all over the country that might have better bells and whistles. They might have fancier facilities, but when you get down to it, the people here are our biggest point of separation. Eastern Illinois, Charleston, Coles County is a special, special place and those that fit feel that very quickly when they come here. They feel at home and at ease.”

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