Eric Rooks, in two years, essentially traveled 20 percent of the distance around the globe.
The Chicago native and De La Salle’s all-time leading receiver spent his senior year at The Taft School in Connecticut, then trekked nearly 5,000 miles and six time zones west to play college football at Hawaii.
“Everything broadened my horizons,” Rooks said.
In that year in Hawaii, though, Rooks caught just one pass. He also watched teammates go home to the West Coast for breaks and their parents come to campus. Chicago is, of course, a nine-hour plane ride away and renders any regular or occasional visit pattern impossible.
So once again, he sought a change of scenery. This one, perhaps his last for a little while, brought him back in his home state and a three-hour drive away from his family on Chicago’s Southeast Side. He committed to Eastern Illinois in May and was formally announced as a roster addition last week. As a down-transfer from FBS to FCS, he is eligible to play immediately and has four years left. He can declare 2018 a redshirt after appearing in only two games.
“I’ll definitely have a larger role here and be closer to home,” Rooks said.
Rooks considered the directional and physical opposite of Hawaii – he had a visit set to Maine, a destination that would have surely set the record for farthest transfer had he chosen it. But he shut it down and committed to EIU after visiting in mid-May.
“I’ve been bouncing around,” Rooks said. “It’s going to be work regardless of where I’m at, but it feels better when your family can drive to games or come to school.”
Though he’s in a familiar area, Rooks is transitioning into an offense that will contrast the run-and-shoot, four-wide attack that Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich employs. The Rainbow Warriors averaged 39 pass attempts per game.
EIU ran the Air Raid a year ago in Kim Dameron’s final season, but the Panthers’ offense under Adam Cushing will not involve a commitment to those heavy pass-first principles or appear too similar to Hawaii’s offense. The identity of the offense is still largely a secret in Cushing and staff’s first year, but it’s likely to be a more balanced attack.
Still, Rooks is leaving Hawaii feeling like he’s an improved receiver who can step on EIU’s practice field this August and compete for a starting spot. He played behind John Ursua, a seventh-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks who led the FBS with 16 receiving touchdowns and was fifth in receiving yards. The receptions didn’t come Rooks’ way, but lessons did.
“Receiver is more of a deception game, you’re countering the DB and that’s how I think of it now. Trying to be elusive, get open. That’s what I learned from John, because he’s really good with releases,” Rooks said. “Every day you have to approach it that you’re going to get better, regardless of how you’re feeling. That’s how John went about it. But he also kept things light and made a connection with everybody.”
EIU’s receiving corps lost its top two receivers, including current Minnesota Viking Alexander Hollins. James Sheehan moved back to tight end, and Nick Atoyebi exhausted his eligibility. No returning player in the receiver room had more than 22 catches. There are snaps to be had and passes to be caught.
For a player searching for a clearer path to the field and an end to a cross-country journey, it was too difficult to pass up.
“I felt like I could make the greatest impact here,” Rooks said.