As Eastern Illinois football toils through fall camp under first-year coach Adam Cushing, the JG-TC is examining each position group. Next in the series: the secondary.
Returning players: DB Corneliuss Page (R-Sr.), S Ray Crittenden (R-Jr.), S Edwyn Brown (R-Soph.), S Iziah Gulley (R-Jr.), S Bryce Dewberry (Soph.), CB Xzavier Shugars (R-Sr.), S Marcus Bornslater (R-Soph.), CB Mark Williams (R-Jr.), DB Charles Shelton IV (R-Fr.), CB Jordan Jackson (R-Jr.), CB Jonas Filer (R-Soph.), S Darius Waddell (R-Fr.), DB D.J. Perry (R-Soph.)
Incoming players: CB Donovan Perkins (Fr.), CB J.J. Ross (Fr.), CB Nile Hill (Fr.), CB Dylan Hughes (Fr.), CB T.J. Davis (Fr., walk-on), S Matt Ross (Fr.) DB Jordan Williams (Fr.), S Brandon Guido (Fr., walk-on), DB Connor Aldrich (Fr.)
Departed players: CB DySaun Smith (Sr.), DB Ryan Mosley (Fr.), WR/DB Javon Turner (Sr.)
Biggest offseason development: Smith, an 11-game starter at corner, is out of eligibility. As is Turner, a former Penn State wide receiver who started one game at corner in 2018. But those two are the only notable departed starters from last year’s secondary. Darshon McCullough and Courtney Rowell moonlighted as defensive backs last year but are now back at their original running back position. McCullough started three games at the “star” hybrid spot.
EIU returns the primary starter at three of the four main positions. Both safety spots featured a revolving door of starters, but the primary guys (Brown and Crittenden) and the occasional starters (Gulley and Dewberry) are back. Page and Crosby both started at the star, along with McCullough.
Defensive coordinator Chris Bowers cautions against reading too much into that, though. He and Cushing don’t care who did what last year. No one has earned snaps based on their 2018 job title. Heck, the coaches don’t even know those titles.
“I’d read about us and think, ‘I wonder who they are,’” Bowers said. “I hadn’t paid attention. I think everyone knew from the moment we got here that from January 7 on would determine what happened.”
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Bowers isn’t faced with identifying contributors from a cadre of entirely unknown commodities. While the receiver room and the offensive line faces that issue, EIU has eight defensive backs who have started at least three games in their careers. Mark Williams, the group’s most experienced player, started all but one game in his first two seasons at EIU.
“He has played a lot of football,” Bowers said. “He’s a heck of a player. You can trust him out there.”
That group should be past the stages of adjustment to the college game’s speed and complexity. Their growth has to come from technical improvement and execution of assignments, and that’s where the coaches will have their biggest impact.
Several of the returners played significant snaps early in their careers. Williams started as a true freshman. Brown and Gulley cracked the rotation to become starters as redshirt freshmen. Dewberry was a rotation player and three-game starter as a true freshman. Shugars was a part-time starter as a freshman and a regular in 2017 before an injury wiped out his 2018 season.
There’s experience, but the unit still youth and room to grow. Dewberry and Brown are still underclassmen, but it doesn’t quite feel like it because of their high snap counts as freshmen. Everyone except Page and Shugars has eligibility for 2020, giving EIU’s secondary a chance for anther offseason of continuity.
“The secondary’s going to be a mix,” Bowers said. “You have some old and young.”
That “young” includes nine freshmen defensive backs. Several of them have already seen the field a lot in call camp. With the NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule, it’s expected that most will have a chance to play at some point this season. But there likely will be some who don’t redshirt, because they instantly emerge as one of the unit’s best players. J.J. Ross, the former Cincinnati commitment who held some Power Five offers, is on his way to getting there.
“Our expectations are high,” Cushing said of Ross. “What’s been most impressive is that he came in this summer and was in great shape when he showed up. He’d been doing the workouts we sent him after he signed.”
After less than two weeks of practices, EIU already has some obvious candidates to start. It’d be a surprise if Williams did not open the season as a starter at one corner spot. Dewberry has stood out at safety. Nearly every play in 7-on-7 or full-team work, he seems to find his way around the ball.
“Bryce had a heck of a spring. He’s a quarterback for our defense,” Bowers said. “He combines great intellect and understanding of the defense with great instincts.”
The other safety spot and snaps behind Dewberry are still up for grabs. Brown, Jackson, Crosby and Crittenden figure to be in the mix in there, among other spots. Ross will have a chance to become a starter at the other corner spot, which remains pretty open.
“If we were playing a game tomorrow, Bryce Dewberry plays,” Bowers said. “Mark Williams plays. J.J. Ross will get a chance to play lot of snaps. Ray Crittenden has a great camp.”
There’s no hiding it: EIU fielded one of the FCS’ worst defenses a year ago. Only eight teams allowed more passing yards per game than the Panthers did. Is returning a large chunk of the players who comprised such an ineffective unit entirely a good thing?
“You’re the returning starter on the 118th-best defense in the country, that gave up 492 yards per game,” Bowers said.
Returning starters can be a deceiving stat because it assumes everyone who comes back a year older is automatically a better player. That’s not always the case. Sometimes a player just isn’t cut out for a starting job in a defense that wants to take a step forward. Bad coaching is often involved in poor-performing units, but there has to be some talent and ability present too.
That’s the devil’s advocate look at it.
On the other side, EIU’s defensive staff likes plenty of the returners, thinks they have room to develop and believes there are some impact players in that group. Progress there will be best seen over the course of the entire season. How much of it occurs will determine how much better EIU’s defense can become.
“The only way you really develop is to go play,” Bowers said. “Outside of the O-Line, who can go eat peanut butter and jelly and lift weights and get better, the rest really need game snaps to develop. And nowhere is that more true than the secondary.”
In line with that, Bowers said he expects six to eight of the freshmen to see the field against Chattanooga. The earlier they play, the earlier EIU knows what it has in them and how much they can be trusted.
EIU ran a 4-2-5 base last season under former defensive coordinator Cary Fowler. Bowers is keeping his plans secret other than saying, “we will be multiple.” With college football’s pass-happy ways, though, the nickel or hybrid linebacker/safety is at minimum a key part of the defense, if not part of its base.
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8.4 – the number of yards per pass the Panthers allowed in 2018, eighth-worst nationally.
J.J. Ross becomes a starter by the end of September. He’s too skilled to sit on the bench and he possesses a college-ready frame (6-foot-1, 190 pounds). Cushing and staff have leaned on the coachspeak saying that they will play the best 11 guys. It’s hard to imagine he isn’t one of those by the end of the first month.