CHARLESTON — Eastern Illinois football coach Kim Dameron didn't know exactly how the first year of the early signing period would work. For the first time, NCAA Division I programs could sign high school and junior college players during the winter.
For EIU, it proved to be fruitful, as the coaching staff got a head start at filling some positions of need before the main signing day in February. On Wednesday, EIU announced the signing of seven players, including one junior college quarterback and two junior college defensive linemen. Three of the early signees are seniors in high school.
"We are happy. To be honest with you, I wasn't sure how this would all work as far with where we would be, with the high school kids especially," Dameron said. "Our coaches did a great job of putting us in a position where we could have this group for the early signing period. Obviously it's not over and we will keep recruiting until signing day in February."
Quarterback and the defensive line were the two biggest areas of need for EIU. The Panthers only had two quarterbacks on the roster before signing one, and they also graduated five players on the defensive line.
"We lost good players at a lot of positions, but we felt defensive line was a need as far as numbers, and then quarterback was definitely a need," Dameron said. "Not only are we excited about the people we brought in, but the quality of the people we were able to get."
Scotty Gilkey Jr., who started as a redshirt freshman this past season, and Jaylon Banks, who redshirted this past season, are the only two quarterbacks for EIU. Plus the Panthers are switching to the Air Raid offense, with Scott Parr coming in as the new offensive coordinator. Dameron and Parr are hoping to add three quarterbacks to the roster before the fall, and Parr added a quarterback he's familiar with.
Harry Woodbery, who played at Navarro Junior College where Parr was his offensive coordinator last season, signed with EIU. Woodbery redshirted his first season and passed for 2,131 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017.
"Moving into a new offense that is more fast-paced and wide open, we have to have a lot of quarterbacks and have to hustle to find them. Harry played last year for coach Parr and he will come in with a familiarity with the system," Dameron said. "He knows when he gets here, he has to compete for a spot. We feel like because Harry has been in the offense, he will be able to come in and compete right away."
The Panthers also added a wide receiver who is familiar with Parr's offense. Matt Reyna caught 34 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns at Navarro last season.
"He already has experience in the system and adds to our depth at receiver and can compete right away," Dameron said.
EIU lost two starters on the defensive line with David Johnson and Mack Weaver, both seniors, and Inoke Tuai and David Owens both rotated in. Both are seniors along with Chibuike Nwuda, so EIU needed to bring in some defensive linemen in the offseason.
Ryan Coleman, a 260-pound defensive end from Trinity Valley Community College, and James Ubaike, a 280-pound defensive tackle from North Dakota State College of Science, both signed with EIU.
"We needed help defensively and needed it immediately, and we are excited about Ryan and what he brings to the system. He can play the run and he has a burst to rush the passer," Dameron said. "James is a bigger presence inside and hopefully he can give us help there. We felt if we could get a couple of defensive linemen now and a couple of high schoolers later, we will be in good shape."
One of the high school players EIU added is already familiar with EIU. Bryce Dewberry is the younger brother of All-Ohio Valley Conference defensive back Bradley Dewberry. Bryce is also a defensive back.
"Bryce has been part of the family for a long time. I am really pleased that him and his family felt good about this place and what his brother has done here, and how he was coached and treated so that they would want their other son to come here," Dameron said. "It's a great family and we are excited to have Bryce, who is a really good player in his own right."
EIU signed 6-7, 330-pound offensive lineman Rashawn Schandon, from Blue Island Eisenhower High School, and Skyler Mayes, a linebacker from McCracken County High School in Paducah, Kentucky.
"Rashawn is a big, athletic kid and I am excited about him," Dameron said. "Skyler, he's a kid who was up here for a couple of games this year and we are excited about him."
The next National Signing Day is on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018.