CHARLESTON — Benny Boyd, upon his January arrival in his new job, needed only a brief film review of Eastern Illinois’ secondary in 2018 to form his precise teaching points and initial focus.
There were bad habits to break, mindsets to change and improved technique to drill into a unit that allowed 8.4 yards per pass attempt and 27 touchdowns.
“The things I was looking at were not the way we were going to go about championship football,” said Boyd, EIU’s cornerbacks coach.
“I didn’t want to hold the way things were done before against the guys, but I also had to let them understand there’s a certain way we’re going to function in everything we do, in our approach in the meeting room, the weight room, the classroom.”
A young unit a year ago that had seven players start and suffered some injuries returns nearly all its main contributors. DySuan Smith, an 11-game starter at corner, is the only non-returner among those seven. That means everyone who endured or was responsible for last year’s struggles has the chance to rewrite the narrative through their own growth. For that to happen, a “culture of accountability,” as Boyd puts it, needs to exist. That has served as an overarching theme for the secondary this spring, an emphasis Boyd knew was needed after he left that brief glance at the 2018 film.
“For us, our job is one where if we make a mistake, the official is putting his hands over his head. It’s a touchdown,” Boyd said. “Our accountability and attention to detail has to be higher than or as high as anybody on our team, because if it’s not, we’re giving up points.”
After all 15 spring practices, Boyd and the rest of the defensive staff feel the secondary has progressed at an encouraging pace. EIU has installed nearly all its schemes and plays on both sides. As of now, there will be no new major concepts to learn from scratch when training camp comes in August.
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“We exposed them to as much of the verbiage as we could, so then come the fall, it’s the second time around,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing said. “There are a few things, little tweaks here and there, and as a staff we have to sit down and figure out what our personnel does really well. That’s our job now.”
In the secondary specifically, a handful of players have moved positions from a year ago (Boyd and the rest of the staff chose not to reveal who). It all added up to a lot of new technique to teach and new responsibilities in each coverage to learn. There were bumps, Boyd said, but the secondary emerged from spring with a grasp of everything thrown at it.
“Coach Boyd is a phenomenal teacher. (Safeties) Coach (Neal) Renna is a phenomenal teacher,” Cushing said. “They’re able to take big things and make them small, take those big ideas, those coverage concepts and boil them down to the little details. When you can do that, you get what we saw this spring, which was our guys understanding everything because we weren’t trying to talk about 25 things. We were talking about those three keys to playing this coverage or this technique. We saw them improve in that area.”
Boyd mentioned cornerback Mark Williams among the spring practice standouts. A 10-game starter opposite Smith last year, Williams had two interceptions and four pass breakups. That’s the benchmark now entering his redshirt junior season following two years as a starter and one Freshman All-American selection in 2017.
“We expect a lot of things from him,” Boyd said. “We expect him to be great.”
Boyd also said safety Bryce Dewberry, hybrid linebacker/safety Antonio Crosby and cornerback Jonas Filer impressed in spring practice. He highlighted Xzavier Shugars and Edwyn Brown (a freshman starter at safety last year) as spring standouts too before each sustained injuries.
“We were up and down as a unit,” Boyd said. “But the improvements we made, we’re starkly different, and that’s exciting.”