Eastern Illinois has every reason to believe things will return to normal in Charleston and that the Panthers will once again become a force in the FCS. But it’s going to take some baby steps and 2021 will likely not be the year it happens.
Eastern Illinois was once among the jewels of small college football – a national championship sprinkled about here and there was always enticing to new recruits.
A former player about to enter the College Football Hall of Fame (Tony Romo) and another who recently guided his team to a Super Bowl appearance (Jimmy Garappolo) adds to the gloried past in Charleston.
Things have been at the opposite end of the spectrum in recent years and now the only place to go is up for coach Adam Cushing and the Panthers.
EIU has compiled a mere 5-24 over the last three seasons after finishing 6-5 during the 2017 campaign.
But the gap is narrowing, according to Cushing, whose team was in contention in the fourth quarter in virtually every contest last season before ending the year with a 1-5 record.
“The results are coming because of the young men we have in our program,” said Cushing, who is entering his third season with the Panthers. “The guys are truly buying into the things we are wanting to do.”
Believing is half the battle.
And after starting at least 10 true freshmen in each of Cushing’s first two seasons at EIU, the Panthers are expecting to become more competitive when the new season opens Aug. 28 at Indiana State.
Eastern Illinois has one of the top young runners in the OVC in the form of Jaelin Benefield (5-10, 160, So.) who averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season for the Panthers.
“He can run away from you,” Cushing said of his star running back, “and he can run you over if he has to. He runs heavier than he is.”
Despite being one of the smaller backs in the league, Benefield shows no reluctance to take his team on his back, or legs, as the case may be.
“However many it takes,” the soft-spoken dynamo said when asked how many touches he is comfortable taking in the course of a game.
The Panthers are expected to open the season with Otto Kuhns (6-3, 205, Fr.), who appeared in four games last season, under center against the Sycamores and Cushing believes Kuhns has what is needed to help EIU continue its climb back to respectability in the league.
“It takes a quarterback to win a football game,” Cushing said, “and (Kuhns) has shown an incredible patience and can make things happen on his feet.”
Chris Katrenick (6-3, 215, RS-So.), a Duke transfer, is expected to push Kuhns during fall camp to determine the No. 1 signal caller for the season opener. Zach Trainor (6-1, 205, Fr.) has also been impressive and could push for significant playing time.
Expect the EIU defense to be much improved this season. And with good reason.
Jason Johnson (6-2, 200), who is just a sophomore, has already established himself as one of the top linebackers in the OVC. He was the only Panther chosen to the preseason all-conference team on either offense or defense.
The only other Panther to garner preseason attention was redshirt freshman Matt Judd (6-2, 185) was tabbed as the top kick returner in the league.
Key Game: When wins prove to be as difficult to come by as they have in recent years, every game becomes a key game for a team like Eastern Illinois. The Panthers can ill afford to overreact with an upset win or a last-second loss and must manage to perform on an even keel to help set the tone for the 2021 season …. and beyond.
Worst Case: The youth and inexperience of EIU may delay the return of the Panthers to the lofty status once enjoyed.
Best Case: The Ohio Valley Conference does not get the respect it deserves from outside its own region. But, the league remains a thoroughbred in the way the game is meant to be played with the blue-collar work ethic in the trenches and the smash mouth play up and down the field.
That being said, the Panthers will be hard-pressed to escape the bottom half of the league standings at season’s end. But they do have the talent to challenge for a bid in that direction.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.