EIU football eager to build off youthful game experience as fall season fast approaches

Linebacker Jason Johnson was named to the Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference team. (photo courtesy Sandy King, EIU Athletics)

His team may have been predicted to finish last in the seven-team Ohio Valley Conference this fall, but Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing continues to look on the bright side of things.

“What an exciting time to be a football fan, two seasons in the same calendar year,” Cushing opened his remarks at Monday’s OVC media day. “This is fantastic. That’s for the fans, and how about the coaches and players that get to do this twice this year?!”

Despite EIU posting just one win in the OVC-only spring schedule, the third-year head coach sees plenty of reason for optimism.

“The reason we’re excited here at Eastern Illinois is what our players have continued to do, to embrace success in all aspects of life,” he said.

Cushing, a proponent of “being more than just a football player,” highlighted his team’s accomplishments as students, volunteers and mentors.

“We set a team record for team GPA, 3.17 (with) 63 guys on our roster over a 3.0 GPA. Eighteen with a perfect 4.0 GPA, all records for our program,” he said. “And we found ways to give back to the community.”

Yet, Cushing is fully aware that his job is largely based upon wins and losses on the field.

“After two years of starting double-digit freshmen we’re excited for the opportunity to maybe not have all that many freshmen in the starting lineup this year,” Cushing said. “We’re very excited after a competitive spring season that we were in every football game.”

Cushing noted that EIU led three of its six games by two scores in the second half and “our guys are ready to build on that and turn it into those Ws that we’ve been looking for consistently.”

Making growth

“What we’re excited about is that young guys can make more growth than older guys. And it’s not to say that older guys don’t make strength gains . . . but the biggest jump happens from freshmen to sophomore and from sophomore to junior year because you get that experience and then you get that little extra experience,” Cushing said.

“When you first start playing college football, you’re going a million miles an hour and everything is buzzing past you. Then it starts to slow down as a sophomore, and once you finally start growing up a little bit, it starts traveling slow and you start seeing everything that’s happening,” he said.

Preseason all-conference picks

Eastern landed two players on the preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference team.

Sophomore linebacker Jason Johnson was named to the defensive team and redshirt freshman Matt Judd was selected as return specialist.

In the spring season Johnson led the OVC in tackles with 66 including six tackles for loss. The Rich Central High School graduate garnered first team All-OVC honors. His 11 tackles per game ranked ninth in the FCS as he posted double figure tackles in each of the Panthers’ last four games.  He was named a sophomore All-American following the season by Hero Sports.

Matt Judd (Sandy King, EIU Athletics photo)

Judd earned second team All-OVC honors in the spring, averaging 24.8 yards per return with a long return of 53 yards at UT Martin.  Judd, a Lincoln-Way East product, ranked 13th in the FCS in kick return average for the year.  He was also a starter at wide receiver making eight catches for 109 yards with a touchdown.

QB derby

As EIU prepares to open camp next week, the quarterback race appears to be between two candidates — freshman Otto Kuhns and transfer Chris Katrenick.

Kuhns, listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, took over the starting job during the spring season from veteran Harry Woodbery. Kuhns made three starts and went 44-of-87 passing for 509 yards. He tossed five touchdown passes with four interceptions.

Woodbery announced he was entering the transfer portal on May 1 and has left EIU.

“We were a different offense with Otto out there,” Cushing said. “Statistically if you look at points we were scoring with Otto as the starting quarterback and the yards we were gaining and the consistency (we were better). Our efficiency per play (as higher); there were a lot of really positive things.

“Otto brings not only that element of throwing the ball down the field, but (also) making some plays with his feet, extending plays. He’s got incredible patience to not just take off (running).”

Katrenick, listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, is a redshirt sophomore who played sparingly at Duke before transferring to Eastern. An Algonquin native, Katrenick played his prep football for coach Bill Mitz at Jacobs High School. He was rated a three-star prospect by ESPN.com, Rivals.com, Scout.com and 247Sports.com.

“Chris has picked up the offense in a big, big, hurry,” Cushing said.

However, due to NCAA rules, Katrenick isn’t been allowed to throw a pass for the EIU staff in person until camp officially opens.

The Panthers’ other two quarterbacks are freshmen Zach Weir (6-3, 185) and Zach Trainor (6-1, 205).

“EIU had always better be talking about the quarterback position, given our history,” Cushing said. “The reality is, and everyone knows this, that it takes a quarterback to win football games. The four guys we have on the roster have had an incredible summer.”

Eastern opens the season Aug. 28 at Indiana State in a non-conference “Week Zero” game.

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