DECATUR — Millikin's offense, riding the dual-threat talents of quarterback Matt Holmes, a second-team All-College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin selection, and wide receiver Erik Tobey, a first-team honoree, put up gaudy numbers in 2012. The Big Blue averaged 36 points and 433 yards per game, third only to conference and regional powers North Central and Wheaton.
Having lost the two to graduation, the Big Blue will turn its focus to finding new playmakers to join junior tailback Sean Dunning this fall, who rushed for 747 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a sophomore. For Millikin to build upon last year's 5-5 record, and help ease that transition, a lot of pressure will fall upon 2009 Effingham High School graduate and current fifth-year senior left guard Eric Whitaker.
Whitaker, a second-team All-CCIW pick in 2012, enters his third-straight season as a starter for coach Patrick Etherton's squad.
"Eric's a great leader, on and off the field," Etherton said. "His work ethic is second to none. He's an experienced player, he's been through it."
The former Flaming Heart was the only returning starter on the line for Millikin last fall, helping the Big Blue amass 4,329 yards of total offense. Holmes accounted for a good deal of that, passing for 2,162 yards and 26 TDs while rushing for a team-high 858 yards and five more scores.
"We had a great quarterback in Matt Holmes," Whitaker said. "One of the best I've ever played with."
Tobey caught 70 balls for 860 yards and 10 touchdowns from his flanker spot, forming one the most lethal pass-catching duos in Division III football.
But the key to Millikin's success was Whitaker's unit in the trenches. The six-foot-one, 280-pound guard helped balance a solid 50-50 run-pass attack. The Big Blue passed for 2,290 yards, and rushed for a total of 2,039 yards. Not bad.
"It's not just on the quarterback," Whitaker said. "It's on us (the lineman) too, to do our jobs to make us successful. We've been successful with our offense based how we've had that dual-threat, both running and passing."
Millikin finished sixth in the CCIW, closing with a 2-5 conference record that could have easily been 4-3. The Big Blue fell by a single point at Illinois Wesleyan (34-33) and came up short by a field goal against Elmhurst (45-42), an NCAA playoff team that lost to eventual national runner-up St. Thomas in the second round.
"Our record wasn't what it was supposed to be, but if you look at a couple of those games, if we make a play here or there, it's a completely different outcome," Whitaker said. "We were a lot more competitive. I'm looking forward to (this) year."
Whitaker is currently living in his off-campus house in Decatur, using the Millikin facilities to prepare for perhaps his toughest test yet. With a first-year starter under center, Whitaker and three other returning starters on the offensive line will likely be the key component to the Big Blue's performance in 2013.
"I think our offensive success is going to be based on how our o-line performs," he said. "Especially since we have four returners. Now that everybody knows what it takes, I think a lot of our success will fall on the line."
And that's just fine with Etherton. On top of his seasoned experience, Whitaker also boasts plenty of talent.
"He's very agile for a bigger kid," Etherton said. "He moves well, he gets off the ball, does a great job with his assignments. He should be one of the top offensive lineman in our conference."
Division III football doesn't allow teams to practice in pads during spring ball, so Etherton and the Big Blue instead used that time to focus on the candidates at quarterback.
Recent Effingham graduate Nathan Vail will join the competition when the team reports in August, but no matter who earns the starting nod, Etherton knows that Whitaker and the offensive line can help soothe any early-season nerves.
"Experience on the offensive line is huge," Etherton said. "First-year starter at quarterback—a veteran offensive line is going to make his job easier. (Whitaker) started all ten games last year, we're excited to have him back."
Millikin kicks off the 2013 season with a home date against Greenville on Sep. 7.
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at email@example.com