As Eastern Illinois football toils through fall camp under first-year coach Adam Cushing, the JG-TC is examining each position group. The series starts with a look at the wide receivers.
Returning players: Dewayne Cooks Jr. (R-Fr.), Matt Reyna (Sr.), Marques Ray (R-Fr.), Robbie Lofton (R-Jr.), Jalen Johnson (R-Soph.), Xander Richards (R-Soph.), Teriq Phillips (Soph.), Bron Hill (R-Jr.)
Departed players: Alexander Hollins, Aaron Gooch, Javon Turner, Alex Smith (left team), Devin Morrison (left team), Nick Atoyebi
Incoming players: Isaiah Hill (R-Soph.), Kirk Pinkston (Fr.), Trevon Brown (Fr.), Ryan James (R-Soph.), Eric Rooks (r-Fr.), Will Shumpert (Fr.)
Biggest offseason developments: Hollins signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent, Hill transferred from South Dakota State and Rooks transferred from Hawaii.
This is, undeniably, a transition year for EIU’s receiver group. Hollins and Gooch are out of eligibility. James Sheehan is EIU’s primary superback. Seniors Nick Atoyebi and Isaiah Johnson (a running back and fourth-leading receiver) are gone. The leading returning receiver is Phillips, who caught 22 passes in 2018.
Things to like
Despite all that departed production, EIU entered camp with a strong sense of two likely primary options, Reyna and Lofton. That kind of clarity this early in such a transitory period is helpful, and it also presents a diversity of skills. Reyna did most of his 2018 work out of the slot, while Lofton’s 6-foot-3 frame makes him a strong fit at the X or Z outside receiver spot.
“It’s still early to tell what our group is going to look like as of today, but those two guys will be on the bus,” Cushing said. “Everybody else, it’s open season for competition.”
Reyna, perhaps generously listed at 5-foot-8, has unsurprisingly found himself in this spot. He has some history of production, with 21 catches for 274 yards in 2018. A short glimpse at his film shows his best asset: speed.
“Size or not, you can’t deny he has straight-line speed that you can’t teach,” wide receivers coach Mark Philmore said. “If you have a kid who’s running a 10.4 100-meter, you’re going to have some success.”
Lofton is more projection-based, with just two career catches and more playing time on special teams than offense in his first two seasons. But Philmore, Cushing and teammates have praised his attitude since the team reported for winter workouts on Jan. 7, its first day on campus under Cushing and staff’s supervision. He has been rewarded with the early opportunity to carve a role in EIU’s offense.
“He’s really stepped in as a leader,” Reyna said. “You can tell there’s that drive and what he wants. He’s running routes full-speed, communicating, not coming out.”
There sure are a lot of them, but the pressing one is finding out which players from the glut of unproven holdovers and newcomers can establish themselves and break into EIU’s receiver rotation as a trustworthy option. The Panthers have eight returning receivers, but only two of them – Phillips and Reyna – have more than five career receptions. Three (Bron Hill, Johnson, Ray) have none.
They’re not just competing against themselves, though. EIU brought in three freshmen and three transfers. None of them are exactly proven either.
Former Purdue walk-on James was a late addition and has seen plenty of snaps in early practices, but he has yet to separate himself. Rooks, while enticing as an immediately eligible FBS-to-FCS transfer with four years left to play, caught just one pass at Hawaii last year. He already has ideal size (6-3, 215) for an outside receiver, but his status and stature alone have not guaranteed him anything.
Isaiah Hill, as it stands now, has to sit out the 2019 season after transferring from South Dakota State due to NCAA rules, unless he is granted a waiver. He became a factor in the Jackrabbits’ offense in the FCS playoffs, when he scored two rushing touchdowns against Duquesne.
“As of right now, we’ll see what happens,” Philmore said.
Reyna mentioned Bron Hill, Ray and Richards as three of the returning players who stood out to him in the offseason. Ray has seen a lot of snaps out of the slot and profiles as a weapon there, possibly a backup or supplement to Reyna. Hill (6-5) and Richards (6-4) are projectable as outside receivers.
“The process right now is just getting a true evaluation of what they can do physically and what they can do mentally with handling the playbook,” Philmore said. “We’re trying to get them coached up as fast as possible to see if they can help. I like to think we’re doing pretty good with that. We had a couple guys we had to hold back a little bit based on different things. All in all talent-wise, I think we’ll be in a pretty good spot.”
Cushing and offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski have a long-standing familiarity with Rooks, which made him an easy target when looking to add more competitive depth to the receive room. Rooks in 2016 camped at Iowa State, where Kuceyeski was the director of high school relations for a few months. Kuceyeski remembered him. Cushing was in touch with Rooks while he was Northwestern’s offensive line coach early in Rooks’ high school career. Rooks’ dad and Cushing’s brother were high school classmates, Cushing said.
“When it came that we weren’t going to end up recruiting him (at Northwestern), I just tried to advise him,” Cushing recalled. “We didn’t stay in touch by any stretch of imagination, but when this opportunity came around and he made a decision to change, he reached out. You see the name in the portal and the familiarity with multiple guys on our staff, it makes a big difference.”
Take away Phillips and Reyna’s combined 43 catches last year, and EIU’s other six returning wideouts have a combined four catches.
Reyna will catch 80 passes. All the uncertainty surrounding the cast of characters behind him plus his speed will equal him emerging as EIU’s go-to receiver for the entire season. As other names emerge and things change in-season, EIU’s offense may not look the same in November as it does Aug. 29 against Chattanooga.
Reyna should be a constant, though, because of his speed and versatility. It’s not safe to assume EIU’s offense will closely resemble Northwestern’s, but Cushing and Kuceyeski were part of Wildcats’ offenses that were kind to receivers like Reyna who may not be physically imposing, but offer versatility and consistency.