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The Eastern Illinois football team is coming out of its best season in more than 20 years, but after a 12-2 record, a second OVC title in a row, and an appearance in the FCS quarterfinals, the Panthers enter 2014 with a few unanswered questions.

Dino Babers was in and out of EIU just as fast as his offense drove down fields last season, making the jump to Bowling Green after two seasons coaching the Panthers. Babers’ move to the FBS opened the door for first-time head coach Kim Dameron, who previously served as the defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech in 2013. The rookie head coach makes his return to the OVC for the first time since 1995, when Murray State had the third-ranked defense in the FCS with Dameron as the defensive coordinator.

Kim Dameron

EIU head football coach Kim Dameron

Along with a new head coach roaming the sidelines at O’Brien Field, EIU will also have a new quarterback under center. As Jimmy Garoppolo learns behind Tom Brady at Patriots’ camp, EIU has a quarterback battle on its hands to find the replacement of last year’s Walter Payton Award winner.

As spring practices intensified in April, red-shirt senior Andrew Manley emerged as the team’s starting quarterback. His prior experience at New Mexico State coupled with the ability to avoid turnovers put the Hawaiian native ahead of the rest, but even at the end of the spring Dameron was still adamant that the competition was not over.

Boy was he right.

In late April, rumors started to whirl around the twittersphere about Dorial Green-Beckham possibly joining EIU. During the same time Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow was also reportedly on his way to Charleston, Illinois. Green-Beckham ended up at Oklahoma, but Whitlow indeed transferred to EIU, where Dameron said he would have a chance to compete for the starting job.

Less than a month away from the season-opener at Minnesota, the starting quarterback is still unknown. Dameron has not given any hints as to which way he is leaning.

If new offensive coordinator Greg Stevens’ system is any indication, though, the answer may very well be Whitlow. Stevens has the tough task of following the program’s best offensive production in history, but has some credentials at his former school to back up his philosophy. In 2013, Southeastern Louisiana also made it to the FCS quarterfinals, behind its No. 12 scoring offense (38.4 PPG). Stevens had quarterback Bryan Bennett, who passed for 3,165 yards and also rushed for 1,046 more, throwing 21 touchdowns and rushing for 16 last season.

Whitlow joins the Panthers, bringing a dual-threat set of skills at the quarterback position, as he passed for 1,834 yards and eight touchdowns, and ran for 663 yards, scoring nine rushing touchdowns while at Kentucky.

Manley had two rushing touchdowns during his final season at New Mexico State, but he ended 2012 with negative rushing yards. However, Manley did throw 18 touchdowns and 2,764 yards, which rank seventh and sixth, respectively, all-time in single-season records at New Mexico State.

Manley did not blink an eye once Whitlow officially transferred in May, welcoming the former Kentucky quarterback. “More competition is better for everyone – all it does is makes everyone a better player,” Manley said. “I believe in competition with the best to be the best and I’m ready for him to push me as much as I’m going to push him.”

Regardless who the starter will be, there is no question that the offense will not run as fast as last year’s. Yet again, that is unfair because outside of Baylor, EIU had the fastest tempo in all of college football last season.

Dameron said the new EIU offense would have a more balanced look to it, using the run more to control the clock during games, a vastly different approach than Babers, who always seemed to have one foot on the gas pedal last year, while his other foot was on the opposition’s throat racking up blow out wins after blow out wins.

Obviously the big name no longer at EIU is Garoppolo, but his favorite receiver and holder of basically every program and OVC receiving record Erik Lora is now trying to earn a roster spot for the Minnesota Vikings. It’s not all doom and gloom for the EIU offense, though. Manley and Whitlow both have prior starting experience. The program’s most accomplished receiver is no longer there, but red-shirt senior Adam Drake took a big leap forward last year, accumulating 81 catches for 1,240 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Joining Drake in the receiver pool is Jeff LePak, who in his first full year starting, caught 46 passes for 656 yards and scored seven touchdowns. At 6’6, LePak provides a huge target for the quarterback. He is also a red-shirt senior.

The big playmaker coming back out of the receivers is junior Keiondre Gober, who in two seasons has averaged 19.7 yards per catch. In ten games last year, he had 45 receptions, 870 yards and nine touchdowns. Gober is by far the fastest weapon for the Panthers.

And then there is red-shirt junior running back Shepard Little – more on him later.

Dameron comes into EIU with a defensive background and is looking to make some changes, especially after Terrance West’s record-breaking night against the Panthers’ defense in last year’s FCS playoffs. Aside from making the defensive line better, Dameron also faces the challenge of replacing three starters from last season’s secondary.

The first-year head coach has another first timer on his staff, as Kane Wommack will be the defensive coordinator after being a graduate assistant at Ole Miss.

EIU lost three big names from last year’s team, but there is still enough talent on both sides of the ball to have high hopes. The Panthers were picked to finish third in the OVC by the conference’s medial poll and second by the coaches and SIDs.

Fans should fully expect EIU to compete for its third consecutive OVC championship.

 

Grades

Offense: B+

It is tough to replace your quarterback, who was good enough to be a second-round NFL draft pick, but Whitlow and Manley do share at least one common trait. Before Garoppolo started to shatter records left and right with the arrival of Babers, the Arlington Heights, Ill., native played in 19 games over two seasons.

Andrew Manley

Andrew Manley

Whitlow started eight games for Kentucky last season and appeared in all 12 Wildcat games. He has played against SEC defenses and saw some action as a true freshman, when he started seven games.

Manley entered each of the 2011 and 2012 seasons as the starter for New Mexico State, making 15 starts combined. His 2011 season was cut short after suffering a season-ending injury in the Aggies’ third game. As a true freshman, he started four games.

Both quarterbacks have plenty of experience, so it’s not like they are going into the unknown. Either way, whoever the starter is does have several weapons surrounding him.

The question now is, was the production put up by Drake, LePak and Gober a product of their own talent, or was most of it because program’s best quarterback was passing them the ball? We will find out once the season begins.

The 2014 season will not be all about the passing game for EIU. Actually, when you look close at the numbers, the running game played a large factor last year as well.

Little is coming off a monster season, which was his first year playing on the team. He finished seventh in the FCS in rushing yards with 1,551 and scored 15 touchdowns through the ground. He also added 17 catches with two receiving touchdowns and another two punt return touchdowns.

Last year, Stevens watched over his Southeastern Louisiana offense score 42 rushing touchdowns (No. 4 in the FCS). I’m sure EIU’s leading rusher was more than a little happy when he found out who his new offensive coordinator would be this season.

Yet, it is a new coaching staff and the players have to learn a new system, which is why for now at least a B+ heading into the season.

 

Defense: B

For much of the 2013 season the EIU defense was overshadowed by the offense, but it quietly ended with a solid year – well until Towson came into a snow-covered O’Brien Field in mid-December.

There was definitely a sour taste left in the mouths of the defense after the 49-39 loss in the FCS quarterfinals. The Panthers may not have as much depth on the defensive line as they may want, as Dameron said during the spring, but EIU does have its linebacker core back intact.

Junior Kamu Grugier-Hill and seniors Adam Gristick and Robert Haynes played in all 14 games last year. Gristick started all 14 at outside linebacker, while Haynes started 12 games at middle linebacker. Grugier-Hill only made five starts, as he split time with two other linebackers.

The defensive line does return Dino Fanti, who was a disruptive force against opponents. He finished with five sacks, starting all 14 games at defensive tackle, while leading the team with 14.5 tackles for loss. The junior along with red-shirt junior Fedney Delphonse will have to produce more this season to lead the defensive line, especially now that Pat Wertz is no longer there to anchor the group.

Red-shirt junior Jourdan Wickliffe gives Dameron some sigh of relief in the secondary, where the safety started all 14 games last season and returns to a defensive backfield that will have a couple new names playing more often. The strong safety was EIU’s playmaker, leading the team in tackles, (91) while forcing four fumbles and collecting three interceptions.

D.J. Bland made five starts as a defensive back, playing in all 14 games. Anthony Goodman, who played in every EIU game and made one start a year ago, will also be in the mix to see who joins Wickliffe to solidify the back four of the Panthers’ defense.

After spring practice ended in April, Dameron said the defense would have many different looks during games, adding the team would show a lot of nickel packages.

Again, a new coaching staff, a young one at that with Wommack as the defensive coordinator, some questions in the secondary and the defensive line and adjusting to a new system leads to a B.

 

Special teams: B-

It is no secret that EIU’s special teams were a tad bit shaky last season. Even four-year starting kicker Cameron Berra had a rough year, making 7-of-17 field goal attempts (41.2 percent). He did set a new school record, making 77 extra points, but 12 were either missed or blocked.

It was not all Berra’s fault, as there were holding problems and long-snapping issues throughout the season that led to many blocked kicks.

Berra is gone and two of the Panthers’ kickers on the roster have primarily only handled kickoff duties during their careers. Red-shirt senior Cody Meyer had four kickoffs against San Diego State last season, but was lost for the rest of the season with an injury. In 2012, he had 17 kickoffs.

Senior Tyler Kerr was EIU’s kickoff man last season and did a fairly good job, as the Panthers finished with the third best kickoff return yardage holding teams to 15.03 yards per kick return.

Little and Lora handled 19 of the teams 23 punt returns last season. With Lora gone and with Little’s role seemingly becoming more important as a running back this season, I wonder how many opportunities he will get.

If Little, who scored two touchdowns in his 11 punt returns continues to be the main man, this will be a big plus for EIU. He’s a playmaker and giving him more touches would benefit the Panthers.

Red-shirt junior Trey Pendergrass along with Little took care of the Panthers’ kick returns, and the duo averaged 20.9 yards per return.

I love the return game of EIU, especially if Little continues to be a big part of it, but a lack of experience in the kicking game brings the grade down to a B- for now.

Almost forgot about something. Punting fans, I’m sorry. I have nothing for you. Kerr is also listed as a punter and so is Nick Brown, who is a freshman.

 

Key players:

Offensive line

OK, I cheated a little on this one.

The truth is, though, the big guys up front play a major role in the success of the offense. Everyone was gushing over Garoppolo last year, but he was always praising the guys in front of him. Yes, he did have a lightening quick release that avoided any serious pressure all season long but the front five stood firm protecting EIU’s gem.

The Panthers will have at least two new starters this season, as Alex Pierce and Dominic Pagliara both completed their senior seasons a year ago. Dameron wants the opposing defenses to defend all 11 players, so running plays drawn up for the QB should be expected. The option will also be used, so the line has to learn the system quickly and execute.

 

EIU Burning Questions

Shepard Little

Shepard Little

All right, maybe I’m giving Little too much love.

I know DaMarcus James from Jacksonville State was tabbed as the OVC’s preseason favorite to win the player of the year award, but do not sleep on EIU’s Little.

After spending most of last season splitting carries with Taylor Duncan, Little took advantage of his opportunity to start after his running mate went down with an injury. Little established himself as a premiere back in the OVC, leading the conference with 110.6 rushing yards per game.

This will be his second full year with EIU and following a 1,500-yard season expect more monster numbers under Stevens’ system.

 

Andrew Manley/Jalen Whitlow

There is no one position that could make more of an impact in football than the quarterback. Manley was set to lead the Panthers once spring ball concluded, but with the arrival of Whitlow the future starter is uncertain.

Nonetheless, both men possess strong arms and with the new system put in place by Stevens more running from the quarterback is to be expected. Fans have seen an exciting offense for the past two seasons and the new one may not live up to the one spectators have been accustomed to but it should still provide some potency.

At the helm of the success will be the quarterback. Manley. Whitlow. Come Aug. 28, EIU’s future will be much clearer with one of those two men in charge.

 

The team will have a great year if…

The team will struggle if…

There is only one answer for both of the statements. The Panthers have to buy in to their new coaching staff. The talent is there, but getting used to something new after so much success with a different coach could be difficult to adjust to.

EIU will continue to win if the team believes in not only Dameron, but Wommack and Stevens as well. This is not a young team, with several juniors and seniors filling the roster. They know how to win; now they just have to learn a new way to get to their wins.

 

Schedule

Aug. 28 @Minnesota

Sept. 6 vs. SIU

Sept. 13 @ ISU

Sept. 20 vs. Austin Peay

Sept. 27 @ Ohio

Oct. 11 @ EKU

Oct. 18 @ SEMO

Oct. 25 vs. TSU

Nov. 1 @ TTU

Nov. 8 vs Murray State

Nov. 15 @JSU

Nov. 22 vs. UT Martin

 


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OVC Ball
Predicting the OVC race…in mid-December

2016-17 Basketball Standings

OVCOverall

EAST

Belmont8-014-4
Morehead State6-310-12
Tennessee Tech5-39-14
Jacksonville State5-413-11
Tennessee State4-413-8
Eastern Kentucky2-69-14

WEST

UT Martin5-315-8
Murray State5-311-11
SEMO5-310-13
Austin Peay3-57-15
Eastern Illinois1-79-12
SIUE0-85-17
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