As Eastern Illinois football toils through fall camp under first-year coach Adam Cushing, the JG-TC is examining each position group. Next in the series: quarterbacks.
Returning players: Johnathan Brantley (Sr.), Harry Woodbery (R-Jr.), Scotty Gilkey Jr. (R-Jr.), Jaylon Banks (R-Soph.)
Departed players: Qua Gray (Fr.)
Incoming players: Jonah O’Brien (Fr.)
Biggest offseason developments: There were, well, none. Cushing and offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski decided they would not take a scholarship quarterback in the 2019 class, citing a strong returning group. They held true to that and have not added a transfer, though O’Brien joined the team as a walk-on in the spring.
Brantley, Woodbery and then-incumbent starter Gilkey Jr. battled for the job heading into 2018, and they’re doing so again in 2019. Brantley won the job and made nine starts, though Woodbery still played in all 11 games and started two. Gilkey Jr. missed all but one game in 2018 and all of spring practice due to injury after making five starts in 2017.
What to like
Unless Banks surprises and wins the job out of camp, EIU will start a quarterback who has won an OVC game. This isn’t four fresh, nervous faces who have never stepped on the field vying for the role. Nor is it a battle in name only, with one experienced starter “competing” just to keep him sharp.
Brantley and Woodbery also bring starting experience from other levels – the former made three starts in two years at the FBS level with Tulane, while Woodbery tossed 12 touchdowns in his one year at Navarro Junior College in Texas.
“You want to talk about the best problem in history, it’s having quarterbacks with experience,” Cushing said. “Certainly more than one is going to give you the opportunity to really have a great competition.”
Banks is the outlier of the group, with zero career pass attempts in his college career. The offensive staff has praised his attitude and work ethic during winter workouts and spring practices, but he would need a monster August on the field to filch the job away from the other three.
Woodbery and Brantley combined for 27 touchdowns and just eight interceptions last season, sharing snaps in all nine games in which both were active. Woodbery started EIU’s Sept. 29 win over Tennessee Tech when Brantley was injured, and started again the next week at Murray State, though Brantley played in that game.
There’s another side to three upperclass quarterbacks competing for the starting job: It’s easier to gather a fairly strong idea of what each can bring from their previous game experience. That’s a good and bad thing. Based on Brantley, Woodbery and Gilkey Jr.’s past appearances, it’s highly unlikely that any of them would trot onto the field and look entirely lost trying to run the offense. So there’d be no disaster scenario where the winner looks the part in camp and falls apart in his first game action for whatever reason. All told, it's a stable situation and an ideal spot to be in for a coaching staff taking over a team that went 3-8. Turnaround projects do not often come without quarterback problems.
The potential pitfall, though, is the possibility that each has reached their ceiling and is more or less what they showed in 2018 or 2017. Late-career surges in production and ability have happened. Right in line with that, one of EIU’s coaching staff’s mottos is to “take players where they haven’t been before.” But senior or fourth-year junior leaps are not a guarantee either. It’s possible that there’s not a lot of room for improvement in skill, accuracy or arm strength.
Given that, if EIU’s QBs are what they are at this point, it would not make for a disaster by any stretch of imagination. Brantley, after all, threw just two interceptions, completed 65.1 percent of his passes and set an OVC record by throwing 230 straight passes without a pick last year for an offense that scored 32.5 points per game. He became a proven chain-mover for EIU’s offense in short order and added a rushing threat.
Woodbery threw 13 touchdowns in 2018, averaging a TD pass every 16 attempts. Gilkey Jr., with his oxen-like 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame, threw three touchdowns and rushed for six against five interceptions as a part-time starter in 2017. Each has their way of moving the ball.
“A quarterback manages the offense,” Cushing said. “He doesn’t have to have the biggest arm or be the most athletic guy. He has to move the offense from Point A to Point B, and when you have multiple guys who have done it, it’s pretty exciting.”
Thing is, though, none has averaged more than 6.7 yards per attempt in his EIU career. They moved the ball, but not exactly at an alarmingly efficient rate. The low YPA is due in part to EIU’s pass-happy 2018 offense that featured lots of short- and medium-distance throws, but the structure of the offense reflects on the personnel too – a good playcaller would not ask a quarterback to make a bunch of throws he didn’t think the quarterback could make or implement a protection scheme the offensive line couldn’t execute.
“We’re going to try and aim to be more balanced this year,” Brantley said in the spring.
Cushing wants a successful manager, but the ceiling for EIU’s offense goes way up if its primary quarterback is, in fact, the one with the best arm talent or the most athletic. Can one of the quarterback candidates be that and take the offense to a higher level of efficiency, all while breaking in a new group of receivers?
6.6 – EIU’s yards per pass in 2018 (it drops to 6.3 if sacks are included as pass attempts), which tied for third-worst in the OVC despite throwing for more yards than any team in the league except for Jacksonville State.
Brantley opens the season as the starter. As Cushing mentioned, the ability to move the offense and manage the game will be a deciding factor in naming a starter. Brantley is the safest bet and offers the highest floor with his ability to protect the ball. He adds the running element as well.