Rob Le Cates
The Eastern football team is entering their second week of spring practices for the 2022 season. For Chris Wilkerson, stepping on O’Brien Field as a head coach for the first time in 20 plus years has been a humbling experience.
“It is exciting every single day. It is humbling,” Wilkerson said. “It’s just an amazing opportunity and like you said, I was here as a player, I was here as an assistant coach, and now coming back as the head coach, it’s extremely humbling.”
Wilkerson is certainly familiar with the ins and outs of being a student athlete here at Eastern.
He not only played defensive tackle for the Panthers from 1991-94, but he also earned his degree from EIU in 1995. He said that his deep connection to Eastern as both a coach and a player has given him a nice advantage when it comes to building relationships with his players.
“I would certainly say I do have a pretty good idea about what it’s like to be a student athlete here at Eastern Illinois and what it is like to walk in their shoes,” Wilkerson said. “You know whether it’s walking from Old Main down to Coleman or whether it’s going to Lumpkin or whether it’s going to eat at Stevenson dining hall, I have a pretty good idea of kind of what they go through on a day-to-day basis. I would say it’s a very, very nice advantage.”
Of course, one of the first things that Wilkerson accomplished as head coach was building a staff of people that shared the same outlook. As the Panthers enter their second week, Wilkerson said that they have done a phenomenal job of surrounding the players with good people.
“The coaches have been amazing. We’ve really done a phenomenal job surrounding the players with good people,” Wilkerson said. “First and foremost, they’re outstanding football coaches, but they are amazing people. They are great mentors and motivators and have done a phenomenal job connecting with our players so far. So, I am really excited about the staff.”
In a recent interview with WAND, Wilkerson revealed that the team will be implementing an air raid offense during the upcoming season. Despite the system being new to a lot of the players, Wilkerson said that they are focusing more on the process of getting better day by day.
“We are certainly, right now, focused more on the process and trying to improve on something every single day,” Wilkerson said. “But we are spending the time to put in our base offense and defense and special teams philosophies, evaluate talent, build team chemistry, but the most important thing is the connection to our players. That’s the foundation of everything that we’re going to do.”
These next few weeks will give the Panthers a taste of what the regular season will hold for them this fall. Wilkerson said that above all, there are some main takeaways that he wants his players to gather from the spring practices.
“I think for us, it’s that we have some non-negotiables and that is that the players will communicate, will give great effort, and play with great enthusiasm,” Wilkerson said. “Those are the three things that we’re going to talk to them about every single day before we get on the field. If they do that, they connect with each other and trust each other and they trust the coaching staff, we’re going to have an opportunity to certainly be successful. But it’s more about focusing on the process right now than it is the end results.”
Autumn Schulz can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]