As Eastern Illinois football toils through fall camp under first-year coach Adam Cushing, the JG-TC is examining each position group. The final installment in the series: the defensive line.
Returning players: Austin Johnson (R-Soph.), Aaron Woods (R-Soph.), D’Mitri George (Soph.), Ronell Deo (Sr.), Kylan Cole (R-Soph.), Terrell Greer (Sr.), Anthony Lewis (R-Fr.), Jayden O’Neal (R-Fr.), James Ubaike (R-Jr.)
Departed players: Ryan Coleman (R-Soph.), Josh Price (Sr.), Taylon Shepard (Sr.), Zavion Moore (Fr.), Levi Watson (R-Sr.)
Incoming players: Charlie Brooks (Fr.), Dominic Moore (Fr.), McKinley Neville (Fr.), Tim Varga (Fr.), Cameron Leach (Fr.)
Biggest offseason developments
Watson and Price, two 11-game starters who combined for 17 tackles for loss, are gone. Just three players who made starts last year (Greer, Austin Johnson and George) are back. EIU brought in five freshmen, highlighted by a Signing Day splash in Moore, who held a few FBS offers.
Greer is the lone regular starter back from last year’s defensive line, though Austin Johnson played a part-time role as a stand-up edge player and is slated to start in that role this year.
What to like
Greer’s an example that defensive line coach Deonte Gibson and defensive coordinator Chris Bowers can lean on during practices. He’s not a stat-sheet filler or even the owner of the prototypical defensive tackle build, at 5-foot-10 and more bowling ball than imposing figure. Nor is he the guy most likely to jump in the middle of a huddle to fire up his defensive teammates. Instead, the coaching staff praises his preparation, practice habits and still values the overall skill level.
“The greatest thing he brings is a prime-time example of what it takes to excel at this level, by the way he practices and his work ethic,” Gibson said.
Added Cushing: “His play speaks for itself. He doesn’t have to talk. He just lines up with his lunch pail.”
Greer, unsurprisingly, is listed as EIU’s starting nose tackle. The other two occasional starters from 2018 with eligibility left, Johnson and George, are both listed as starters for Thursday. So everyone with meaningful experience will have an important role to start, with Greer as the defensive front’s anchor.
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“We’re expecting big things out of him and to lead us by example,” Cushing said. “There are going to be ups-and-downs in a Division I football game, and when things are on that roller coaster, you go back to the guys who play well.”
Johnson is listed as the starter at one defensive end spot, but it’s expected to be a more versatile spot that can be used as a stand-up rusher and linebacker. He made two starts at a similar spot last year in the four games he played. He sat the rest and took a redshirt. George had 2.5 tackles for loss in part-time duty that included two starts at defensive end.
Leach is EIU’s lone freshman with prototypical interior lineman size and skill. It’s not one of EIU’s deeper positions, so him proving worthy of a spot on the two-deep right away is an encouraging sign.
Moore instantly became EIU’s most decorated recruit of the decade, according to 247Sports, when he committed on the morning of Signing Day. Several of EIU’s assistants and Cushing himself put in the work to sell him, an FBS-level talent, on playing at an FCS school. They still love the upside as an edge player, but how much will he play this year? He was not listed on EIU’s depth chart for Thursday’s opener, though that does not mean he will remain a deeper reserve for the entire year.
With the NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule, Moore and any other freshman can play a few games without losing a year of eligibility. It’d be a major surprise if EIU doesn’t adopt that exact usage with its freshman freak on the defensive line.
“He’s blessed with a lot of things that have nothing to do with my coaching,” Gibson said. “He’s progressed a lot since the beginning of the summer to now. For someone his size, he’s a really good athlete.”
Moore (6-foot-7, 295) stepped on campus ready to play physically. His ability to earn a regular role and avoid a redshirt season, though, will hinge on how quickly he can grasp EIU’s defense, adjust to a higher level of football and harness his natural ability.
4.9 – yards per carry for opponents against EIU in 2018.
Austin Johnson finishes the season as EIU’s sack leader. He’s primed to play a heavy load of snaps and has the athleticism to give opposing tackles problems off the edge. If he can turn it into steady production, it’ll help an EIU defense that had just 10 sacks last year.