I’m struggling to remember the last time there was this much uncertainty surrounding defending Ohio Valley Conference champions heading into the season. Their new head coach, Kim Dameron is cut of a much different cloth than the former head man, Dino Babers. Their NFL-caliber quarterback is a backup for one of the best in the league, their record breaking wide receiver is gone as well.
So where do we begin? Let’s start at the top
1. What kind of changes can EIU expect under Kim Dameron
In a word, plenty. Before Babers came to Charleston, he led a similarly up-tempo, fast-paced offense at Baylor. Dameron isn’t an offense guy at all, rather a former defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech. He brings with him a new offensive coordinator, Greg Stevens, formerly of Southeast Louisiana, where his team was third in the nation in rushing touchdowns. (That sound you hear is Shepard Little screaming in joy) I wouldn’t describe the Lions offense last year as “ground-and-pound” but this year’s Panthers offense is not likely to be as wide open as last year’s offense, although the personnel will play a role in that as well.
If there’s an area EIU’s defense was lacking at times last season, it was the front four, which was evident in the Panthers FCS tourney loss to Towson. EIU allowed 4.2 yards a rush in 2013, which put them in the bottom half of the OVC.
2. Does the new personnel at skill positions help, or hinder a system change?
Former University of Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow will almost certainly start the season under center. South Florida transfer Stephen Bravo-Brown could be a top target, as could Adam Drake, Jimmy Garoppolo‘s number two target a year ago.
While the talent appears to be there, there’s one thing that’s certainly not: chemistry. This is an offensive unit that will mostly be playing with each other for the first time, and for the returnees, like Drake and Little, they’ll also be learning Stevens’ system.
A lot of the Panthers’ success could come down to how quickly the 2014 Panthers can come together.
3. With another former FBS quarterback at backup, how much room for error does Whitlow have?
If you asked me last year, I would have told you Andrew Manley, the former quarterback at New Mexico State, who lost his starting role due more to a system change than his own performance, was a lock to be the starter this year. Then, the offseason happened, and another FBS quarterback transferred in.
Whitlow’s numbers from last season, 98-153 for 1,033 yards, 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, are misleading; after all, he played at an undermanned Kentucky against the might that is the SEC. But here’s the question: just how far ahead of Manley is he? Is Whitlow one bad game, or even half away from being pulled?
We fully plan to ask this on Monday, and fully expect to be told that they stand behind Whitlow. But I wonder, in reality, just how much room for error he has.
4. Does last year’s performance by the Panthers, and the OVC in general, boost the Panthers if they’re on the bubble?
Sure, if given the choice, Eastern Illinois would rather win the conference and remove all doubt, but if the Panthers are on the bubble to make the FCS playoffs, say sitting at eight wins, could their profile give them a bit of a boost. The OVC is likely to be seen as one of the tougher FCS conferences, after a very solid postseason a year ago, and EIU is ranked as high as fourth in the nation by one preseason poll, and ranked in the top-25 in the rest.
Of course, the NCAA will tell you these things don’t matter.
Right…of course not…