‘It’s just the start,’ Wilkerson says after 2023 Spring Game


Ashanti Thomas

Quarterback James Cooper Jr. gets tackled by defensive lineman Nicholas Oliveira-Chace on a rush attempt Saturday afternoon on the O’Brien Field.

Kate Stevens, Assistant Sports Editor

The defensive side of the ball took charge in the Eastern football team’s annual spring game Saturday afternoon at O’Brien Field.

EIU’s defense won in the annual scrimmage as they were able to make stops on EIU’s offense as they made big plays throughout the game.  

The defense is now led by Clay Bignell who was new to head coach Chris Wilkerson’s staff last season. He was the defensive pass game coordinator and the safeties coach for the 2022 season.

He was promoted to the role as defensive coordinator after former defensive coordinator Adam Gristick was hired as the assistant linebackers coach by the New Orleans Saints in March.  

Bignell said he is having fun with his new role and enjoyed being in game mode Saturday. 

“It was awesome,” Bignell said. “I thought they’d gotten better every single day. They came in here and went to work every day, so it was good to see. It’s been fun since getting this job, it’s been a lot of fun getting to run the show.” 

He said the defense had a solid day on the field and they had fun getting out there and getting work done. 

“They were flying around and having some fun,” Bignell said. “They communicated and they executed at a pretty high level, so that was good to see. Being actually able to go out and in a game-like situation and actually execute, so that was good.” 

He said people should expect to see more of this powerful defense in the fall season.  

“Hopefully a team that comes out, executes at a high level and runs around tackles and then gets after the football,” Bignell said.  

Junior linebacker Elijawah Tolbert said it was good to be back out on the field with his teammates and he loved the way they performed. 

“I loved the defense’s performance, I always love the way we perform,” Tolbert said. “Even if we do good or bad, just being out there with my brothers.” 

He said he is looking forward to playing with his teammates and getting some more wins this season. 

“I’m looking forward to us obviously winning more games and competing as a family,” Tolbert said. “Just coming together more and more every day.”  

He said people should look forward to watching the defense make a lot of plays. 

“A lot of plays, a lot of playmaking is going to get made this year and I can promise you guys that,” Tolbert said.  

He said the favorite thing about the defense is the tight-knit group that they have. 

“I just love the brotherhood we have,” Tolbert said. “We’re super close, like even outside of football, like we just love to hang out with each other, we love just being around each other.” 

On the offensive side of things, there were some big plays and touchdowns made. There was a rotation of the quarterbacks. Pierce Holley, a redshirt-junior spring transfer from Georgetown University, began the game at the quarterback position. 

During the first quarter there was a rotation of Holley, returning quarterback Jonah O’Brien, and transfer quarterback Terrance Gipson. Returning quarterbacks Kevin Conway and James Cooper Jr. made appearances in the rotation later on in the game.  

Holley said the team did well today, but they still have some things to work on over the summer.  

“I thought we did good,” Holley said. “We’re definitely still putting some pieces together, but overall, pretty good day. So, just a lot to improve on and just keep working over the summer and build up momentum.” 

This is Holley’s first “game action” with the team and he said it feels good to be a part of this team. 

“It feels good,” Holley said. “Still figuring some guys out and still meshing all the pieces together, but it’s been good.”  

He said he’s looking forward to getting some work in this summer and ultimately getting the playbook down. 

“I just look forward to working on all the stuff that we needed to improve on this spring,” Holley said. “And just getting the playbook down pat and just keep on improving for the fall.” 

He also said that fans should look forward to a fast offense that will be scoring a lot of points.  

Junior wide receiver Eli Mirza is also a new face on the team. He was able to get some catches and a touchdown on a pass from Jonah O’Brien in the game.  

Coming from California, he said he feels blessed to be at EIU as he was welcomed here with the rest of the mid-year transfer players. 

“It’s amazing,” Mirza said. “Our teammates welcomed all the mid-year transfers with open arms. It’s just a blessing to be here honestly. We’re just trying to change the culture here one step at a time.” 

He also said he felt good about his performance and that while he is excited to be here, the midwest weather is one thing he will have to get used to. 

Coach Wilkerson said he was proud of the team’s effort as there were many big plays made on both sides of the ball. 

“The guys did a really good job of competing and we talked about playing with great effort and enthusiasm and communication all spring and they certainly did that,” Wilkerson said. “We’ve also emphasized fundamentals and I saw guys use their technique in critical situations, so that was really good to see. It’s exciting.” 

Wilkerson said the game was a good start to the season, but he and the team have some work to do over the summer as they will push harder to be a better team in the fall. 

“It’s just the start,” Wilkerson said. “It’s a good springboard for us now into the offseason, where we know we’ve got to push even harder with our strength and conditioning stuff and our organized team activities that they’ll have in the summer as we get ready for preseason camp.” 

He said he is most looking forward to watching his team continue to develop in the summer and throughout the season as they focus on improving and getting better each day. 

“I think just the opportunity to continue to develop,” Wilkerson said. “Especially defensively, there’s been some transition there. And coach Bignell and his staff have done a really good job emphasizing fundamentals. The guys are playing faster and they’re communicating. We’ve done some different things to create different leverages on the edge and in the deep ball part of the defense and on the perimeter and all the things have really given the guys a chance to be competitive, so I’m excited about that.” 

Wilkerson also announced two of this year’s team captains at the end of the game. Redshirt-junior defensive back Mark Aitken and senior offensive lineman Chad Strickland were named team captains after a vote by the team.  

“They are just extremely passionate and tough and competitive individuals,” Wilkerson said. “Those two epitomize the pride and toughness that Eastern Illinois football stands for. So, I’m very happy for both of them. I look forward to watching them continue to develop and lead our football team this fall.” 

Strickland said he is honored that his team chose him as one of the captains.  

“I felt really honored by the team,” Strickland said. “I’m glad the team chose voted for me. I feel like the team has a lot to offer for this coming off season and [we’ll] work hard and during the season, we’re gonna get at it.”  

He said he’s proud of the offense’s performance in the game and is looking forward to the summer and the season. 

“I felt like this spring game really showed us some good things,” Strickland said. “It showed us some things we need to work on. But overall, I’m proud of them. I think we’re gonna go up from here.” 

Strickland said his favorite thing about the offense is when they play inside zone and the fact that the quarterbacks and running backs trust the linemen to get the job done for them. He said that is something that they will see a lot of in the upcoming season.  

He said as a captain he has some expectations from his team. 

“I’m expecting everyone to have the mentality of ‘just do your job for everyone’ because I feel like as long as you focus to get your job done, all 11 guys, then there’s no way we can’t be successful.” 

The football team now enters the offseason where they will focus on getting to know the new players that will join them this season. They will also focus on strength and conditioning before the preseason fall camp in August.  

The team’s first game will be Thursday, Aug., 31 in Terre Haute, Ind., as they take on Indiana State University. 


Kate Stevens can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]