Panthers spring into 2017 season this week as practices begin
Finding a replacement for do-it-all running back Devin Church and forging continuity with a new defensive coordinator are tops on the spring to-do list for Eastern Illinois football coach Kim Dameron.
But when the Panthers open spring practices today leading up to the April 22 spring game in Charleston, Dameron will moving around campus with a new mode of transportation.
Dameron said he is recovering well after having his right knee replaced earlier this month and will be using a golf cart to make the rounds at practice.
“I had a knee injury in high school and had a surgery,” said Dameron, who played collegiately at Arkansas from 1979-82. “It had kind of worn out after 40 years.”
Replacing top rusher
For the past two years, Church led the Panthers in rushing and receiving. He was a reliable blocker, a trusted receiver and earned the coaching staff’s admiration.
“I like to play a lot of backs,” Dameron said. “But when it came down to it, I wanted the ball in Devin’s hands. We just have to find that guy.”
Korliss Marshall ran for 274 yards and three touchdowns last season as a junior, while Darshon McCullough had two touchdowns as a true freshman.
Dameron also said two incoming freshmen – Rodarrious Brooks of Birmingham, Ala., and Courtney Rowell of South Bend, Ind. – will get the opportunity to contribute this fall.
“I feel like we’ll be more of a running back by committee, unless of course somebody really steps up and becomes that guy,” Dameron said.
Crowded QB room
Syracuse transfer Mitch Kimble, who passed for 1,400 yards and 13 TDs in an injury-plagued junior season, leads the pack at quarterback. After a slow recovery from a back injury last off-season, Kimble is healthier and more knowledgeable when it comes to EIU’s offense.
“When you don’t have a full off-season, you’re just not as physically strong,” Dameron said. “I feel good about his progress. His body will be able to compete physically a lot better.”
The Panthers also return senior Austin Green and juniors Bud Martin and Jared Pilson, who all took snaps last season. In addition, Scotty Gilkey, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound redshirt freshman also will be “in the mix,” according to Dameron.
“Physically, he’s a big, strong kid,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see his progress.”
New leaders on defense
Dameron, a longtime defensive coordinator during his coaching career, said he will be more involved on that side of the ball this spring as newly hired Cary Fowler takes over as the Panthers’ top defensive coach.
“The biggest thing for us staff-wise, is to all be on the same page and keep as much continuity as we can,” said Dameron, a longtime proponent of the 3-3-5 defensive alignment. “I don’t foresee a huge scheme change. We’re trying to stay as close as possible to the terminology of what we’ve done.”
However, Dameron did say there would be some minor changes as Fowler, who played safety at Murray State, takes the reins. Fowler spent last season at NCAA Division III Howard Payne University in Texas and was the head coach at Division II Tarleton State in Texas for six previous seasons.
Secondary a plus
Among the biggest positives on defense for Eastern is a secondary that boasts plenty of experience.
Senior safeties Bradley Dewberry, Vince Speller and Tray Mitchell all return, along with a younger group who earned playing time last season. That group, Dameron said, includes sophomore safety Raymond Crittenden and sophomore cornerbacks Cornelius Page and Xzavier Shugars.
“I feel good about that group back there coming together,” he said.
Playmaking outside linebacker Nick Horne is back for his senior season along with a strong group of defensive ends led by David Johnson, who had a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss as a junior.
“As a defense, we have to develop an identity,” Dameron said. “I look forward to them taking on the culture of this program as a tough group that plays hard, runs to the football and plays with relentless effort.”