With 2 games remaining on schedule, EIU's Cushing remains optimistic about his growing Panthers

Freshman linebacker Colin Bohanek has emerged as a playmaker on defense. (photo courtesy eiupanthers.com)

Despite just one win this season, Adam Cushing continues to see positives in his Eastern Illinois Panthers. Moreover, the third-year head coach remains excited about the growth his youth-oriented team have displayed.

“Obviously, the guys that weren’t out there (with injuries) made the strides just getting back out,” Cushing said in reference to the return of receiver Isaiah Hill and running back Jaelin Benefield in recent weeks.

For much of this season, Eastern has started five freshmen on offense and six freshmen on defense. A number of sophomores have also started or served as the main backups.

With just two games remaining on its schedule, starting with Saturday at Austin Peay, Cushing remains optimistic about his Panthers.

“I know I’m going on and on about a 1-8 football team, but I’m just so proud of these guys . . . the season is coming to a close and I’m just going to miss being around them all the time,” Cushing said.

EIU is 1-8 overall and 1-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference. Austin Peay is 3-5 overall and 1-2 in the league.

Growing Panthers

During Tuesday’s OVC media address on Zoom, Cushing touched on some of the players he’s seen improve their games the most.

“Bryson Broadway, up front,” Cushing said of his freshman offensive right tackle.

He also lauded the efforts of the “super back” tandem of sophomore Nick Stricker and redshirt freshman Anthony Manaves.

“We went into the season wondering how defined their season would be and they’ve both defined their roles for themselves,” Cushing said.

He rounded out the offense by recognizing freshman receiver Arron Foulkes, who “has really started to step up and play his best football throughout the season” and freshman quarterback Otto Kuhns.

“There’s been some ups and down and he’s been throwing it to the other team a bit too much, but I think he’s realizing just what it takes to be a successful Division I quarterback (and) the preparation required,” Cushing said.

“Defensively, a guy like Jordan Miles has really, really stepped up for us,” Cushing said of his freshmen defensive end who leads the OVC in tackles for loss.

Cushing also lauded linebackers Jason Johnson and Colin Bohanek, who rank 1-2 as conference leaders in tackles.

Jason Johnson

“Jason Johnson makes tackles, and he’s always made tackles,” Cushing said. “It’s hard to define his growth, but I think what you see with Jason is that he’s added more dimensions to his game. He wasn’t a box player in high school, so he’s just learning more and more about playing in the box. He defeats blocks different ways now. He used to be all speed because he’s a fast dude, but now he understands the box game so much more.”

Of Bohanek, Cushing said, “In his first full season of starting, has really been an anchor there at the ‘Mike’ linebacker position, making the calls and getting everyone on the same page.”

The EIU head coach closed out his praise acknowledging his young secondary, which regularly features three freshmen starters.

“Our corner (back) play has just improved,” Cushing said of junior Russell Dandy and rookie Mark Aitken.

News & notes

Saturday’s game will mark the final conference meeting between the two teams; Austin Peay announced in September it was leaving the OVC to join the ASUN (formerly the Atlantic Sun Conference) . . . Isaiah Hill, who recently returned from injuries that sidelined him for all of the spring season and much of the fall, turned in the top receiving performance in the Ohio Valley this season. The Minooka High School graduate caught 11 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown in last Saturday’s loss at Southeast Missouri State. “He just showed you what he’s capable of,” “He’s a special young man,” Cushing said of Hill . . . Saturday’s game will feature the OVC’s bottom feeders in time of possession. Austin Peay averages 28:31 per game, while Eastern averages 27:22.

Where to find the game

Eastern Illinois at Austin Peay kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6. The game is on ESPN-Plus. The radio broadcast is offered on Charleston-based Hit Mix 88.9 FM.

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