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Illinois State running back Markel Smith (21) looks to get away as Eastern Illinois linebacker Dytarious Johnson (51) and Joe Caputo (45) pursue during a 2017 game at O'Brien Field in Charleston.

CHARLESTON – A recent Eastern Illinois defensive staff meeting turned into a ranking session.

EIU’s five defensive coaches each drafted a list of the Panthers' 15 best defensive players in order and shared it. There was one obvious consensus among all of them: Joe Caputo and Dytarious Johnson were among the first picks for each.

“Those two guys, they’re in everybody’s top five,” EIU defensive coordinator Chris Bowers said last week. “After seeing 14 spring practices, everybody knows what they are.”

The new staff is just the latest to realize it. Anyone who watched EIU’s maligned defense a season ago knew those two were standouts.

That hasn’t changed.

Caputo and Johnson, with 32 starts between them, are EIU’s lynchpins in an otherwise unproven linebacker group and the defense’s most productive returners. Caputo led EIU with 86 tackles (7.5 for loss) in 2018, while Johnson ranked right behind him and racked up a team-high 15 tackles for loss. EIU’s spring practices yielded more of the same.

“’They are who we thought they were,’” Bowers said, “to quote Dennis Green.”

That’s only on the field, though. Since the coaching change, Caputo’s and Johnson’s more pronounced impacts have occurred with the pads off. In many ways, they’re the same on film and in practice but different, more enriched versions of themselves in the less visible yet still crucial aspects. All told, they’re crucial to EIU’s first season under Adam Cushing in more ways than just making tackles and stuffing running backs. 

EIU players elected Caputo to the team’s leadership council, a role expected of a player with his production and experience. The coaches entrusted him with delivering a pre-practice talk about excellence before Saturday’s final spring session. He’s a more confident version of himself, the face of a defense that has spent this spring gaining trust in its ability after a lost season full of spinning heads and unsightly numbers.

“We set a new standard on the team, and as a guy who’s been here a long time my goal is upholding that standard and bringing guys along with me,” Caputo said afterward.

“The way I challenge guys is be the best I can be. If they see me doing the right things, studying the plays, watching film, they’re going to want to do the right things too.”

Johnson, meanwhile, has spent four months demonstrating improved diligence that has jumped out to and, in some cases, surprised his coaches and teammates to the point that he’s not who they thought he was.

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The on-field ability was not the question. Rather, it was Johnson’s ability to harness it and display it with consistency.

“He has the most God-given talent on the team,” Caputo said. “That’s always going to be like that. For him, the biggest improvement is attitude and effort. Out of everyone on our team, the way he’s investing into this defense right now and his passion when he plays, he’s probably made the biggest improvement. When you add his physical ability to those characteristics, there’s no one that can stop him.”

Bowers has observed it too.

“Dytarious is a really smart football player,” he said. “He’s been really diligent in his note-taking. I could move him positions and he could execute it pretty quickly.”

EIU may do exactly that. Bowers and the rest of the defensive staff is keeping his scheming and personnel decisions a secret, but everyone acknowledges Johnson’s explosiveness, instincts and experience will be a major part of it.

“It’s about finding what’s best for him and how we can best use his abilities,” Cushing said. “He has some natural stuff to him that we have to find different ways to use his abilities on different downs, maybe move him around.”

As Bowers continues to plot, the spring affirmed to him that his experienced and enhanced linebackers are centerpieces of his defense. He had a feeling based on his initial film review, but 15 practices and countless meetings full of positive impressions cemented it.

The rest is still a work in progress. But two commodities is a good start.

Bowers recounted a decade-old wisecrack from Randy Bates, an old friend and coworker at Northwestern and now the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh. In 2006, Bowers, then the defensive coordinator at Defiance College, went to visit his old colleagues at Northwestern. Bates asked him about his personnel on defense. Bowers replied he had a linebacker, safety and a lot of uncertainty behind those two.

“He looked at me and said, ‘well, if I were you, I’d make sure those two don’t get blocked,’” Bowers recalled. “I was like, ‘how would I do that,’ because if I’m the offense I’m trying to block those two. But I thought that was an interesting perspective.

“Do I think we’re going to design a defense where Joe Caputo and Dytarious Johnson don’t get blocked? No. If I could do that I wouldn’t be sitting here. I don’t think anyone’s capable of that. But we do need to make sure we’re maximizing their skill sets and putting them in a position to succeed if we’re going to go where we want to go.”

Contact Patrick Engel at (217) 238-6856. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickEngel_

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Sports writer

I cover Eastern Illinois football and basketball, as well as Mattoon/Charleston prep sports, for the JG-T

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