Wilkerson era to begin Thursday against NIU


Rob Le Cates

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jonah O’Brien throws the ball during a practice drill Monday afternoon at O’Brien Field.

Autumn Schulz, Sports Editor

The Coach Wilkerson era for the Eastern football team will officially begin this Thursday as the Panthers will travel to DeKalb, Illinois to take on the defending Mid-American Conference Champions, Northern Illinois.  

Coach Chris Wilkerson said that opening his era with the Panthers against the Huskies is exciting for him.  

“Excited. I think the biggest thing, you know, the guys have really worked hard during spring practice and during preseason camp and you get to that point every single year and they are ready to play against somebody else,” Wilkerson said. “It just happens to be an amazing opportunity to go to DeKalb and play against nine win defending MAC champions, picked first in the league and returns 22 starters from last year’s team. It’s an amazing opportunity for us to see where we are at and see the guys compete against someone else.” 

The Panthers will utilize their returning players against the Huskies. Defensive linemen Jordan Miles and Tim Varga were selected to the defensive preseason ALL-OVC team along with safety Jordan Vincent and corner Russell Dandy. 

The Panthers led the OVC in team tackles for loss last season with 71, which ranked 33rd in the FCS during the season. Both Miles and linebacker Colin Bohanek led the team with 11 tackles for loss, which tied for the conference lead. Bohanek was second on the team and in the conference for tackles with 89. 

Offensively, the Panthers will look to wide receiver Isaiah Hill. Hill missed the majority of last season due to injury but was able to return for the final five games of the season. In those five games, Hill led the team with 39 catches for 493 yards.  

The Huskies are coming off a 9-5 season where they were the MAC Champions. Returning redshirt-senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi was named to the watch list for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award last week. Lombardi passed for 2,600 yards last season with 15 touchdowns. 

The Huskies also return sophomore wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph who caught 51 passes for 892 yards and Cole Tucker who caught for 41 passes for 575 yards. Defensively, the Huskies will rely on safety C.J. Brown who led the team last year with 109 tackles.  

Wilkerson said that the Panthers’ defense will have to push Lombardi to throw the football more in order to succeed on Thursday.  

“Coach Hammock has done a phenomenal job of establishing an identity at NIU. He’s been a running backs coach most of his career. He’s been at the University of Wisconsin, he’s been at the University of Minnesota, Northern Illinois University, the Baltimore Ravens and every stop along the way they have played with a physical presence in their offense that runs through their running back,” Wilkerson said. “Their offensive line is big and physical. Their quarterback Rocky Lombardi did transfer from Michigan State. He is a very good athlete, and he is a winner. He fits very well in their system, and he can certainly do things with his legs and his arms. We have a unique challenge our defense is going to have to try and force them to throw the football a little more than they would like to.” 

Just ahead of the season opener, three Panthers were named to the College Gridiron Showcase Small College Watchlist. Wide receivers Isaiah Hill and Justin Thomas made the list along with OVC Newcomer linebacker Foday Jalloh.  

Jalloh said that he must push himself harder since being named to the list. 

“It’s a great blessing honestly but the only thing is though I just know that now that there are more eyes on me, I just have to work even that much harder,” Jalloh said.  

Thomas said that being named to the list means a lot because his efforts have paid off.  

“It means a lot especially being on a team full of studs like this. It’s just a blessing really to see hard work pay off and to be recognized,” Thomas said. 

 Thomas said that he believes that the Panthers will leave DeKalb after successfully upsetting the defending MAC Champions. 

“It adds a chip on our shoulder because we are obviously probably doubted against to a lot of people but to us, we have had a very productive camp and I think that with the talent on this team, we can do a lot of things. We can shock the country,” Thomas said. 

Jalloh said that the Panthers can shock many people come Thursday evening.  

“Great opponents so that means you just have to come out and match their energy and physicality and I believe that we can go out there and shock the world.” 

 Autumn Schulz can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]