Eastern football team talks offense adjustments ahead of season opener


Rob Le Cates

Jay Vallie (right), a graduate tight end, runs around Jordan Vincent (left), a sophomore safety, during football practice Tuesday afternoon at O’Brien Field.

Autumn Schulz, Sports Editor

The Eastern football team is coming off its fall camp where they utilized that time to focus on adjusting their offense ahead of the regular season opener against Northern Illinois on Sept. 1.  

Last season, the Panthers averaged 14.5 points per game, ranking 116th out of 123 FCS teams. They ranked 111th in both rushing offense and in turnovers lost. As a result, opponents were able to score 78 points off turnovers. 

Offensive coordinator Joe Davis said that they are not focused on what happened in the past. Instead, the offensive side of the ball is focused on the new system that was put into place this spring. 

“You know, we are not focused on what happened here in the past. You know, we are a new staff, new offense, new system, new everything, a lot of new players,” Davis said. “And typically to turn something like this around, you have to make sure that you’re not beating yourself first. It rarely has anything to do with the opponent and has a lot to do with us and that goes back to mastering the mundane, we control. Let’s make sure we are experts at the basics and then we can go out and compete on Saturday and let the chips fall.” 

Head coach Chirs Wilkerson will coach his first official regular season game Sept. 1. Wilkerson said that in order to turn the offense around, the team must play to the strengths of players.  

“The biggest thing as we came in the spring, it was a chance to get to know our players and connect with our players personally. This preseason, we have done a little more schematically trying to play to the strengths of our skillset,” Wilkerson said. “So, tweaking what we have in our toolbox as an offense to play to the strengths of the players. We have a number of guys who have returned who were with us in the spring and we have also added a few fresh faces, whether they be first-years or transfers, that have also been fairly impactful during the preseason. Now, it’s about trying to create those matchups and play to the strengths of our players.” 

Some offensive players to look forward to this season are wide receiver Isaiah Hill, running back Jaelin Benefield, and running back Markenzy Pierre. 

Back in April, the Panthers hosted their annual Alumni Social Spring Game where Wilkerson named the captains for the 2022 season. Graduate student tight end Jay Vallie was named one of those captains.  

Vallie said that despite the ups and downs, the team was able to come together during fall camp and focus on preparing themselves on both sides of the ball.  

“Camp, you know, it was fun. A lot of fresh faces, new staff came for the first real time, getting the offense and defense ready for the season,” Vallie said. “I felt we had a lot of energy every day, everyone came to work. There’s ups and downs, guys are getting bruised up, we’re eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. There’s a lot of things that will lull you to sleep and everyone came every day and gave their best to get over those humps that you go through.” 

The offense implemented a new mindset during fall camp called “master the mundane.” Vallie said that “master the mundane” is the offenses’ way of getting back to the basics during pivotal moments of the game in order to capitalize on the moment.  

“One of our quotes that our offense has is ‘master the mundane.’ It’s a tie game, 10 seconds left, you have a couple plays to win or lose it and ‘master the mundane’ is really where that game is won or lost. It’s back to day one stuff and easy inside zone and outside zone play, very basic things. So, we’ve worked really hard at getting really good at the simple stuff so that when it comes to game time, it gets easy.”  

Davis further explained by saying that “master the mundane” is the mindset the team needs to be in in order to control what is in front of them.  

“We had a great philosophy in this camp called ‘master the mundane’ and really the focus on offense was control, we can control, and be experts at the basics,” Davis said. “Typically, during the football season, during crunch time, many of these close games are decided by the basics. Did one team execute their set of basics more than the other? So, that was our focus here this fall.” 

Another aspect of the offense that is looming is who is going to be slated in the starting quarterback position come Sept. 1. There are currently six quarterbacks listed on the Panthers’ roster.  

Out of the six quarterbacks listed, Zach Weir is the only quarterback returning from last season. Weir appeared in four games last season and was 32-of-36 for 386 yards. Jonah O’Brien is also a possible start for the Panthers as he makes his return. O’Brien spent one season with the Panthers in 2019 and then went to Colorado State for two seasons.   

Davis said that the quarterbacks are making strides in many ways, on and off the field.  

“It’s going really good. We have a room full of very smart players, very hard-working players,” Davis said. “We really have three guys that have sort of separated themselves and we’re going to make a decision on that in the next week or so. I could not be more pleased with the work ethic, the dedication, the intelligence, and the execution of that quarterback room right now.” 

Wilkerson said that they will not announce who is slated in the starting quarterback position until the first game next week.  

“The guys have done a phenomenal job competing. We have a pretty good idea of who our starting quarterback is going to be, but we will wait until the first before we announce that. They have done a phenomenal job supporting each other and all of the guys when they have had a chance to lead the offense have done a phenomenal job taking care of the football, leading the offense up and down the field, and being supportive of each other.”