5 burning questions for 2022: Eastern Illinois edition

Running back Jaelin Benefield was hampered by injuries this fall for Eastern Illinois. The running game managed less than 91 yards a game. (Photo by Barry Bottino)

The off-season changes came swiftly after Eastern Illinois finished its third consecutive football season with only one win this fall.

Gone are all five offensive assistant coaches for a unit that ranked 110th in total offense (285.4 yards a game) and 116th in scoring offense (14.5 points) nationally among 123 FCS teams.

Quarterback Otto Kuhns, second-leading receiver Arron Foulkes and offensive tackle Bryson Broadway all opted for the transfer portal, among others.

So what’s next for the Eastern offense?

That’s one of Prairie State Pigskin’s five burning questions heading into the off-season:

  1. Where is the offense headed?

Before his final season in 2018, former EIU head coach Kim Dameron brought in a junior college offensive coordinator to run an Air Raid system. The Panthers went 3-8 that season but scored 28 or more points six different times.

Since current head coach Adam Cushing took over in 2019, the Panthers are 3-26 and have scored at least 28 points only four times.

The Panthers aren’t likely to go all-out Air Raid, but they need consistent quarterback play, a more dependable running game and an offensive line that can pave the way to more than this season’s 3.0 yards a carry and nine rushing touchdowns.

Whatever the new offensive staff looks like, results on the scoreboard are a must.

2. Who plays quarterback?

Kuhns provided some hope in the spring FCS season by sparking the offense. But he departed after throwing six touchdowns and 10 interceptions and battling injuries.

He wasn’t helped much by the fact that EIU allowed 28 sacks this fall, the most among Ohio Valley Conference teams, or a rushing attack that average a league-low 90.7 yards a game.

Eastern currently has only two quarterbacks on its roster. Freshman Zach Weir threw a touchdown and four interceptions while playing in four games this fall. All four interceptions came in his only start, against Austin Peay.

University of Colorado transfer Grant Ciccarone did not see the field this fall for Eastern.

The Panthers have been active in the transfer portal, offering several quarterbacks. On Thursday, South Bend, Ind., native and University of Virginia transfer Ira Armstead announced via Twitter that he was headed to Charleston. Armstead started his redshirt freshman season at Virginia this fall as the backup and played in nine games but attempted only two passes.

3. What’s the biggest defensive need?

In order to take some pressure off of its secondary, EIU needs a revved-up pass rush. There were signs of growth this fall as the Panthers ranked 94th nationally with 17 total sacks. In the previous two seasons, Eastern combined for 17 sacks.

Defensive ends Jordan Miles and Tim Varga tied for fourth in the OVC with four sacks this fall, but no other defensive lineman had more than one sack.

Creating more pressure up front can lead to some interceptions. This fall, the Panthers managed only four picks.

4. Who’s the next breakout player on defense?

Linebacker Jason Johnson blew up during the spring FCS season, showing off his athletic abilities and disrupting offenses. This fall, he led the OVC in tackles and earned first-team all-conference honors.

Fellow linebacker Colin Bohanek is up next for the Panthers and will surely make plenty of headlines in 2022.

Despite having 3.5 sacks and ranking second in the OVC in tackles, Bohanek was left off of the all-conference teams. He is a sure tackler and finds a way to be around the ball at all times.

5. How tough will EIU’s non-conference schedule be in 2022?

The Panthers open the season Sept. 3 in DeKalb against FBS Northern Illinois, which is coming off of a Mid-American Conference championship.

They host Chattanooga, which went 6-5 this fall and beat FCS quarterfinalist East Tennessee State. The non-conference schedule also includes games against Southland Conference members Northwestern State and McNeese State as part of the OVC’s scheduling alliance.

The annual Mid-America Classic game against Illinois State is scheduled for Sept. 17 in Normal.

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