With a combined 50 freshmen and redshirt freshmen, the 2019 Eastern Illinois football roster was overwhelming in its amount of inexperience.
The result was a 1-11 record in head coach Adam Cushing’s first season and freshmen galore all over the field – at running back, offensive line, the secondary, linebacking corps and more.
There were a few bright spots, such as Minooka’s Isaiah Hill, a South Dakota State transfer who revved up the receiving corps when he was ruled eligible during the season by the NCAA. His presence help lift the Panthers’ sputtering offense.
Despite an improved defense, Eastern still has plenty of steps to make in its rebuilding process under Cushing.
Here are five burning questions facing EIU in 2020:
- What happened to the offense?
A year after scoring 32.5 points a game, the Panthers’ offense bottomed out this fall as it relied on a big group of inexperienced players. Eastern stumbled to 14.8 points a game and ranked 119th among 124 FCS programs in total offense (276.3 yards) and 122nd in scoring. At times starting five true freshmen offensive linemen, EIU barely managed more than 100 rushing yards a game. Job one for the Panthers is to pump up their running game. As a true freshman, Jaelin Benefield led the team in rushing and receiving despite his 5-foot-10, 160-pound frame. Benefield’s speed, however, is unique, but a complement to him in the backfield would help. One of the biggest questions for Eastern is at quarterback, where the only certainly was uncertainty in 2019. Johnathan Brantley played four games before bolting the program. Harry Woodbery took over as the starter after Brantley’s departure, throwing for 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. EIU signed two QBs on early signing day in December, so expect a competition in the spring. A bright spot on the young offensive line was left tackle Chad Strickland, who was named to Phil Steele’s Freshmen All-American second team.
- When will the roster wheel stop spinning?
Along with the huge influx of young players last season, the Panthers have had nearly 10 players enter the NCAA transfer portal this off-season, according to social media posts. Change is constant in college football but growing their roster with players from a broader recruiting footprint over several years will provide the Panthers with a roster on par with the Ohio Valley Conference’s leaders. Eastern targeted more experience at quarterback in juco transfer Steven Frank. Adding a few more key juco players or FBS transfers could speed up the Panthers’ progression from a one-win team.
- Can the defense continue its momentum?
As the offense took a quick downturn in the fall, the defense went the opposite direction. In 2018, the Panthers were one of the most generous defenses in the nation, giving up 40.5 points a game. In 2019, Eastern trimmed that average by more than 10 points a game. Only five teams scored 33 or more points against EIU, which allowed 500 fewer rushing yards and more than 550 fewer passing yards in 2019. Eastern saw improvements on third downs, in the red zone, and overall, ranking No. 30 in FCS in total defense (350.6 yards a game). The biggest building block on defense is hard-hitting linebacker Dytarious Johnson, who led the team in tackles (67), tackles for loss (13.5), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (three). Two freshmen that stood out were linebacker Jason Johnson (59 tackles, 4.5 TFLs) and cornerback JJ Ross, who had a team-high four interceptions. Johnson (second team) and Ross (third team) were chosen for the Phil Steele Freshmen All-American Team.
- Has EIU found its next Alexander Hollins?
Despite playing in only eight games after being deemed eligible by the NCAA during the season, South Dakota State transfer Isaiah Hill turned into a gem for Eastern’s sagging offense. He led the team in five receiving categories, including 57 receptions and four touchdowns. Hill is the type of playmaker the Panthers desperately need more of on offense. A member of the OVC All-Newcomer Team, Hill had a 15-catch game against UT Martin and posted 13 receptions for 152 yards and a touchdown against FCS playoff qualifier Southeast Missouri. No matter the quarterback in 2020 for Eastern, expect Hill’s game to blossom even more. Hill's impact on the offense could be just as important as 2018, when current Minnesota Viking Alexander Hollins led the Panthers with 80 catches and 16 TDs.
- Can the special teams get sharper?
Many coaches call special teams one third of the game. For Eastern, that third was a yearlong struggle. The Panthers’ return average on kickoffs (15.9 yards) and punts (2.0) ranked last in the OVC. The Panthers’ net punting average of 30.9 yards was among the bottom 10 teams in the nation. Those three areas alone provide valuable field position for most teams and need to improve.