John Kuceyeski spent December as an unofficial Eastern Illinois employee, still on duty as Cornell’s offensive line coach while identifying recruits to target at EIU and watching film of EIU’s 11 games in his spare time.
He left those self-guided film sessions and arrived at EIU as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator on Jan. 2 already confident in one area of the roster: He was inheriting a strong group of quarterbacks. Strong enough that he and the rest of the staff didn’t feel the need to add to it as they assembled a 23-player late-period recruiting class in a month. It was the one area not addressed in the class.
“I walked away from it and the first thing I said to (head) coach (Adam) Cushing was that we have three guys that have won OVC games and a fourth that is a very good player and a good leader in the weight room right now,” Kuceyeski said last month on National Signing Day. “We feel great about the four we have.”
Those four will take the field together and begin competing for the job for the first time under Cushing and Kuceyeski’s watch when the Panthers start spring practice on Tuesday. Under a new staff, nothing from last year’s depth chart or chain of command is guaranteed, especially given the offensive staff’s favorable impression of the entire quarterback group. All told, EIU isn’t entering this spring with a clear-cut starter.
“They’ll go into the spring truly battling it out,” Cushing said. “They’ll come into spring getting equal reps and figure out who’s the best at what we’re asking them to do.”
In picking one, Cushing has plenty of experience to choose from. Johnathan Brantley made nine starts a year ago in his first season at EIU after transferring from Tulane. He led the Panthers with 2,016 yards and 14 touchdown passes. He threw just two interceptions and set an OVC record by going 230 straight passes without a pick. He also ran for 310 yards and six touchdowns.
Still, Harry Woodbery saw plenty of time and started two games. One of those starts came against Tennessee Tech when Brantley was injured. He attempted 210 passes and threw 13 touchdowns in his first season of Division I action after two years of junior college. It was enough to keep the quarterback position competitive all year. Now, two returning quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts last year bring some more intrigue into the competition under the new staff.
“It’s a situation they’re certainly familiar with,” Cushing said. “I don’t think it’s a negative at all. I think it’s certainly a positive to see these guys compete every snap.”
Then there’s Scotty Gilkey Jr., a five-game starter in 2017 as a redshirt freshman. Gilkey served as the holder in EIU’s opener at Arkansas, then missed the rest of the season due to injury. He is expected to miss spring practice as well.
The fourth quarterback is redshirt sophomore Jaylon Banks, the lone member of the group who has not started a game and who Kuceyeski lauded for his winter workout presence.
There is no concrete timetable for naming a starter. It will be whoever meets the coaching staff’s high standards.
“The fact of the matter is that you should always have a great quarterback here,” Kuceyeski said, already well-schooled in EIU’s history at the position. “I told (quarterbacks) coach (Chris) Batti that he better get some of the top quarterbacks in the country, because this is QBU. That’s the one position we should always be strong at.”