Wilkerson says he is excited for annual spring game


Han Byer

EIU’s football team stretches during practice on the O’Brien Field Tuesday evening.

Kate Stevens, Assistant Sports Editor

Spring has sprung here in Charleston, IL and with that, the annual football spring game is now officially three weeks away.

The team began practicing for its spring game in mid-March in preparation for the offense versus defense, or white versus blue, game on April 22 at 11 a.m. Admission to the game is free.

Head coach Chris Wilkerson is now getting prepared to coach in his second spring game and prepares for his second year at the reins of the team.

Wilkerson said that the team had a nice winter offseason.

“So the winter program was great,” Wilkerson said. “Coach Stein and our strength and conditioning staff did a phenomenal job and the players did; lifting weights, speed, agility, quickness, getting bigger, faster, and stronger. And then you finally get a chance to get back out on the football field and see what that means. So, it’s exciting.”

As he said he and the team are excited to get back onto O’Brien Field, they have begun to work on fundamentals and improving in all areas.

“The focus all spring is going to be very, very, very much on improving the fundamentals,” Wilkerson said. “And it’s going to improve with our base offense, defense, and special teams stuff, the stuff that we know and the stuff that we are going to rely on when the games get close.”

Wilkerson said as they get into the groove with learning and progressing in these areas, they will begin to scrimmage more and prepare for the spring game where things will get more competitive.

He said the new players and new coaches are getting to know each other and the team well and that he is happy with how things are going so far.

“We have 23 new players in our program [who transferred in] at the semester,” Wilkerson said. “They’ve done a phenomenal job, they’re getting to know other guys, and getting to understand the culture. We have certainly added some new coaches and they have all been great additions. Really pleased with what I’ve seen so far through these first three practices.”

Wilkerson has recently announced a lot of roster changes in regards to coaching. Clay Bignell, who served as the defensive passing game coordinator and safeties coach, was promoted to defensive coordinator.

Bignell is replacing Adam Gristick who was hired as the assistant linebackers coach for the New Orleans Saints.

Collin Geier was promoted from outside linebackers coach to inside linebackers coach. Andrew Brady will replace Geier as the outside linebackers coach.

Some other new faces on the Panther football staff include: offensive line coach John Cannova, running backs coach Turner Pugh, tight ends assistant coach Jordan Walsh, and defensive line assistant coach Fred Wyatt.

One of the 23 new faces on the Panther football team come the fall will be Wilkerson’s son, Peyton Wilkerson.

All of the new faces is not the only exciting aspect of the spring game this year.

Wilkerson said that he and the team are excited to see the return of Jimmy Garoppolo at the spring game where they will be retiring his jersey number.

“I’m thrilled,” Wilkerson said. “Just excited for Jimmy to be able to come back and I think it’d be great for the guys to have a chance to meet him. He loves football. He’ll love being back at O’Brien Field and being in the meeting room with the guys. I think it’s a chance for him to thank some people that have been real influential in his journey that has been so successful for him so far.”

Wilkerson also said that the number retiring ceremony will give a chance for the community of Charleston and Eastern students to come together and see one of the greatest players in the history of the Panther football program.

Garoppolo will return for the jersey retirement at the game and then will speak at “An Evening with Jimmy G” which is a ticketed fundraising event through the athletics department beginning at 6 p.m.

The football team will be practicing nine more times in April before the game on April 22.