The Eastern Illinois football team begins its season traveling to the Big Ten’s Minnesota and first-year head coach Kim Dameron knows the Golden Gophers are certainly big.
Minnesota’s five starting offensive linemen have an average height and weight of 6-foot-5, 314 pounds. The biggest of the big is red-shirt sophomore Jonah Pirsig, who is 6-foot-9, 320 pounds.
Eastern’s revamped defensive line goes up against an offensive unit that produced a 1,200-yard rusher last season in senior David Cobb.
“The biggest challenge is standing in there up front physically against this style of coming down hill at you kind of offense,” Dameron said. “That has to do with just how big of a boy you are, you know. We’ve got some big guys that we could put in there that are physical players.”
Minnesota’s power run game is the strength of its offense, with Cobb coming off his first year as a starter. He rushed for 1,202 yards, the first time a Gopher has run for more than 1,000 yards since Amir Pinnix in 2006.
Eastern has its own weapon at running back in red-shirt junior Shepard Little, who rushed for 1,551 yards last season along with 15 rushing touchdowns. He earned preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference honors as a running back and a special-teams specialist.
At quarterback, red-shirt sophomore Mitch Leidner will start for Minnesota.
Similar to what Eastern’s quarterback Jalen Whitlow is capable of, Leidner has the ability to run and do it often.
Last year, he played in 10 games, while starting four; Leidner tied Cobb for the team lead in rushing touchdowns at seven. He also finished the season with 407 rushing yards, which was second behind Cobb. The quarterback also completed 43-of-78 passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns and an interception.
Eastern senior defensive back Deonte Jackson said the Panthers’ defense is focusing on stopping the run game to make Minnesota have to go to its passing game.
“If we stop the run and make them pass – it’s something they weren’t too good at last year, which they put a lot of emphasis on improving this offseason, so we’ll see some of that but we have to stop the run first,” Jackson said.
Eastern’s 2013 season ended with Towson running back Terrance West scoring five rushing touchdowns, while eluding the Panthers’ defense for an FCS playoff record 356 rushing yards.
Jackson was on the field, as West led Towson past Eastern in the quarterfinals 49-39, but the defensive back said Cobb is the best running back he has witnessed in recent seasons.
“He’s a great running back, probably the best running back I’ve seen in the last couple of years that we have played against,” Jackson said.
That does not mean to say Jackson is taking any credit away from West, as he added that both running backs are comparable in size and skill. Jackson hopes that on Thursday Cobb will not be better than West, though.
“I don’t know, I guess we’re going to find out,” he said.
Scouting the Gophers’ defense
Eastern head football coach Kim Dameron pinpointed two key positions that the Minnesota defense could create problems for the Panthers’ offense Thursday night.
At defensive end, Minnesota has red-shirt junior Theiren Cockran. He is coming off of a career year, leading the Golden Gophers in sacks with 7.5.
Starting in all 13 games, Cockran made 30 tackles while forcing four fumbles.
“Their defensive ends are good,” Dameron said. “They’ve had to replace an NFL draft pick, a defensive tackle, but they’ve got good players inside and they’ll be strong up the middle.”
In the secondary, a pair of upperclassmen lead the Gophers starting the season. Senior Derrick Wells and junior Eric Murray received high praise from Dameron.
“They’re really good at the corners,” he said. “Their two corners and their two defensive ends are where they really shine from the preseason.”
Murray had 52 tackles and 10 pass breakups in 13 games last season. Wells had an interception and recovered a fumble, with 17 tackles in 10 games last year for Minnesota.
Red-shirt senior quarterback Andrew Manley and junior Jalen Whitlow have been locking in on Minnesota’s game film.
Manley said he noticed how Minnesota tries to confuse quarterbacks in its coverage’s.
“They like to run cover four and man a lot, so we’re just preparing for that and they disguise very well,” Manley said. “They disguise their man into cover zero and against empty they have plenty of different packages.”
Although there is some disguising in Minnesota’s defense, Manley and Dameron said the Gophers are not too complicated.
“They’re not a super, super complicated defense, they’re a 4-3 quarters defense,” Dameron said. “It’s not that they run a lot of different things, they’re extremely physical and fundamentally sound.”
Last year the Panthers’ offensive line allowed 20 sacks, which was the second fewest in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Eastern returns three starters from last year’s offensive line.
Red-shirt senior Collin Seibert, red-shirt junior Nick Borre and red-shirt sophomore Jimmy Lowery all return to their respective positions of left guard, center and right tackle.
Against Murray and Wells along with the rest of the Minnesota secondary, Eastern has a new transfer at wide receiver that Dameron is excited to see.
“I think it will be interesting to see how Stephen Bravo-Brown does the slot,” Dameron said. “He’s got some shiftiness to him and a little bit of giddy-up.”
Bravo-Brown, who is a graduate student, transferred from South Florida this year.
Red-shirt senior Adam Drake is the leading receiver from last year’s team still on the current roster. He had 85 catches for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Whitlow, who transferred from Kentucky in late May, loves the targets he will be throwing to.
“It’s the first thing I noticed when I transferred is the talent of those guys,” Whitlow said. “Drake is a well-rounded guy and Bravo-Brown is a speedy guy.”
Minnesota’s defense finished sixth out of 12 Big Ten teams in total defense in 2013, allowing 2,796 passing yards and 2,056 rushing yards.
Eastern begins its 111th season of football, as kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn. The game will air on the Big Ten Network.