Jon Voytilla of St. Charles has seen his playing time with the Eastern Illinois football team go down this season, but he’s not complaining.
“With the new coaching staff, we really believe in more of a balanced approach with keeping guys fresh and splitting up the playing time a little bit,” the St. Charles East graduate explains.
The Panthers have a new head coach this season, Dino Babers, and most of the coaching staff is new, as well, including the defensive coordinator.
Voytilla, a junior, started all 11 games last season at defensive tackle. He was in on 13 tackles, including three for a loss, and forced a fumble at Northwestern.
So far this year, he’s appeared in seven games and has three tackles. He remains optimistic about his future with the Panthers, however, noting that seniors are getting a lot of playing time along the defensive line this season.
The changes made by Babers are producing results. Eastern Illinois finished 2-9 last season and lost nine of its last 10 games. This year, the Panthers are 6-3 overall and 5-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference. They’ve won three in a row, including a 24-7 victory at then 18th-ranked (FCS) Eastern Kentucky.
“It’s the first time we’ve beaten them since 2006,” Voytilla said. “It’s a huge win for our program and really got us on the map a little bit.”
Eastern Illinois is tied with Tennessee-Martin at the top of the league standings. The Panthers lost to the Skyhawks, 51-37, earlier in the season, during a stretch in which Eastern gave up at least 49 points in four of five games. Since then, the Panthers have shown dramatic improvement defensively, giving up an average of less than 20 points a game.
Voytilla attributes part of that turn-around – appropriately enough for college students – to good, old-fashioned studying.
“I think that we’ve been really coming together a lot as a group, really spending a lot of time in the film room,” he said. “We feel great.”
He said an emphasis on team play, rather than individual, also is paying dividends.
“We’re starting to really make some progress with that, guys feeding off each other,“ Voytilla says. “That’s been huge for us.”
After a stellar high school career with the Saints that included all-conference accolades and an Upstate Eight Conference championship his senior year, Voytilla’s college search included Illinois, Northern Illinois, Winona State, and Saginaw Valley State.
“Football definitely had a lot to do with it,” he said of his decision to attend Eastern Illinois. “I really liked the campus. I met some of the players and they helped me make my decision. Just the whole atmosphere of the campus really attracted me. … I just decided Eastern was the best fit for me.”
Voytilla is studying corporate communications. He’s undecided about his post-graduate plans.
“I’ve got a wide variety of things I could see myself doing in the business world,” he said. “I haven’t ruled out starting my own company. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid.”
The Panthers host Southeast Missouri (3-6, 2-4) Saturday in their final conference game of the year. They will clinch at least a share of the Ohio Valley Conference with a victory. A win combined with a loss by Tennessee-Martin in either of the Skyhawks’ final two games would give Eastern the conference title outright and an automatic berth in the NCAA FCS playoffs.
Saturday’s game begins at 11 a.m. and will be televised by FOX College Sports.
• Dennis D. Jacobs writes the weekly On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. To submit information on local athletes participating in college sports, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.