During the search for Eastern Illinois’ new head football coach, athletic director Tom Michael sought the advice of four of the most prominent figures in EIU gridiron history.
“If there is such a thing as an ace up our sleeve, I had four of them in EIU football alumni Mike Shanahan, Sean Payton, Ryan Pace and Tony Romo,” Michael said. “I asked directly what they felt was needed in our football program and each of them was extremely helpful.”
The thoughts of Super Bowl winning coaches like Shanahan and Payton, along with Chicago Bears GM Pace and a recently retired star NFL quarterback led Michael to Adam Cushing.
The veteran offensive line coach at Northwestern, Cushing coached five 1,000-yard rushers in nine seasons.
Perhaps more important is that Cushing served for four years as NU’s recruiting coordinator and is a Chicago native.
Cushing will remain in his role at NU until after the team’s Holiday Bowl matchup against Utah.
Here are five burning questions facing Cushing and the Panthers heading into the new year:
What does Cushing have to work with in Charleston?
There are some pluses and a good share of minuses for the new EIU coach.
Though some help at receiver is needed, the Panthers have a productive passing game and two efficient QBs to lean on as Cushing builds his first team.
He has a couple of decent options at running back, but the offensive line is in flux with the loss of three starters from its final game of the 2018 season.
Cushing has a strong reputation as a recruiter, but he’ll need to mine some immediate help via transfers and junior colleges to get competitive right away.
In recent years, the Panthers have found major contributors via transfer (QB Johnathan Brantley) and junior colleges (WR Alexander Hollins), but he also will need to build for the long haul with high-level high school talent.
What will the team’s offense look like?
In the transition to the Air Raid offense last season, Eastern’s quarterbacks were a major bright spot.
Tulane transfer Johnathan Brantley completed 65 percent of his passes and was superbly efficient, passing for 14 touchdowns and two interceptions. Junior college transfer Harry Woodbery showed off a big arm with 13 touchdowns as a backup. The duo combined for 309.3 yards a game, giving Eastern the ninth-best passing offense in the nation.
The Panthers will desperately miss top receiver Alexander Hollins, who had a remarkable season with 16 touchdowns, the second-best total in FCS. He also caught 80 passes for 1,102 yards. All three of those stats ranked in the top 10 in EIU single-season history. Hollins was a difference maker for a prolific passing offense.
In the past five years, the Panthers have had only one 1,000-yard rusher (Devin Church in 2016). The Panthers somehow need to find a consistent running game.
There are some options in the backfield with Jamal Scott of “Last Chance U” fame, who battled injuries but finished as the team’s second-leading rusher. The roster also features redshirt freshman Ivan Webb, who led the state of Kansas in rushing as a senior with nearly 2,900 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Somehow, the Panthers need to discover a reliable running game and find impact offensive linemen.
How can the defense be fixed?
Plain and simple, the EIU defense endured a boatload of struggles this season.
Top cornerback Mark Williams battled injuries all season long, which weakened the secondary.
The team allowed 40.5 points a game, ranking a miserable 112th among 124 FCS teams.
Fixing the defense should start with finding a pass rush. Eastern had 10 sacks this season, the 117th total in FCS. Equally bad was Eastern’s run defense, which finished 101st nationally.
The Panthers need to be more stout up front and put at least a slight scare into opposing quarterbacks with its pass rush. That will require some more athletes on the outside.
The linebacking corps has two solid talents in Joe Caputo and Dytarious Johnson, who combined for 164 tackles and 22.5 tackles for loss.
A deep secondary is a plus as well, but the Panthers managed only seven interceptions and 15 total turnovers created.
Cushing’s early recruiting efforts speak to his top priority. All three athletes the Panthers signed last week are on the defensive side of the ball.
Where is EIU’s recruiting headed?
Undoubtedly, the recruiting efforts will take a bit of a northerly swing. Former head coach Kim Dameron had plenty of contacts in Arkansas and used those to stock his roster with seven current players from The Natural State.
Like many coaches, Dameron used his existing contacts to his benefit. He also pulled in players from Chicago and the suburbs, along with maintaining EIU’s connections in Florida.
Cushing, in his first recruiting class of three signees last week, played up the fact that these athletes came from three Illinois high schools with top-level programs.
Using his recruiting ties in the city and suburbs via a Big Ten Conference school should give Cushing and EIU instant recognition among the state’s top prep programs. That will certainly be a benefit.
Northwestern also has been successful throughout the country.
In the 18-member class NU announced last week, 10 states were represented. Five players are coming to Evanston from Texas. If Cushing can ignite EIU interest in Chicago and dabble in states like Texas and Ohio, the Panthers will benefit from that footprint. Charleston also has the benefit of being a short drive from St. Louis and Indianapolis.
How can EIU return to relevance in the state?
Northwestern has gotten plenty of bump – and ruffled a few sensitive feathers in Champaign – with the marketing slogan “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”
In the process, NU has been on a rise while the Illini and Lovie Smith … well, nevermind.
Perhaps the Panthers should adopt “Chicago’s FCS team” as their mantra.
Making themselves known in Chicago and the suburbs is paramount to their revival.
They can do that by building stronger relationships on the recruiting trail in Chicagoland, but also in Springfield, Rockford, Peoria and the St. Louis suburbs.
On the field, the best way to be relevant again is to start beating Illinois State. The Redbirds are the bully on the block among Illinois FCS schools, having beaten the Panthers four of the past five seasons in the Mid-America Classic.
The last two meetings have been a showcase of just how far apart the two programs are currently. Kim Dameron’s last two EIU teams were outscored 92-23 by the Redbirds.