Each season teams highlight what they need to do to have a successful season. Sometimes it's get good quarterback play. Other times it's play better on defense,\ or run the ball better. The same is the case for the Eastern Illinois University football team. There's a few things the Panthers need to do to have a successful season and compete for either the Ohio Valley Conference title or an FCS playoff spot.
1. Reduce the personal foul penalties
No team ever wants to the highly penalized and some penalties are different than others. Unsportsmanlike penalties hurt EIU in more than a couple of games last season. The obvious game was the Southeast Missouri State contest when a defensive lineman didn't agree with a call the official made and tossed the ball back to him. Whether he said something or not, I don't know, but what he did warranted an unsportsmanlike penalty.
It would've been third-and-long for SEMO and EIU likely would've gotten the ball back late in the game with the Panthers trailing. Instead, the penalty gave SEMO a first down and the Redhawks ran out the clock to pull off the upset against the Panthers.
During the spring and early this fall, EIU coach Kim Dameron pointed out that EIU needs to be a more disciplined team on the field and he's exactly right. It's hard for a team to win consistently by getting so many personal fouls. For EIU to have a successful season, the Panthers need to significantly cut down on the silly penalties.
2. Quarterback Mitch Kimble needs to stay healthy
EIU's offense was considerably different when the Syracuse transfer was on the field. Honestly, I believe Kimble was one of the best quarterbacks in the Ohio Valley Conference when he was healthy. When he wasn't on the field, which was for four games, the offense struggled to find the end zone.
Kimble added about 20 pounds and he had a full offseason to work out. Last offseason he was recovering from back surgery, so he was just getting to 100 percent by the time camp opened.
Adding weight and having a full offseason helps, but sometimes fluke injuries happen, too. I don't know if Kimble suffered fluke injuries last year, but he is stronger this year so that will help. Plus you can see his improvement in practice. If Kimble stays healthy for a full 11 games, EIU's offense could be very dangerous.
3. Figure out who can run the ball consistently
This seems like a no-brainer for every team and EIU has done a good job of doing this in the past under offensive coordinator Greg Stevens. However, the question is who is going to do it for EIU this season after the graduation of Devin Church.
The Panthers have a number of running backs vying for the role. Moorpark Junior College back Isaiah Johnson seems like the best bet to win the starting job. The 6-1, 215-pound back has looked good in practice.
Darshon McCullough made some key plays last year as a freshman and defensive back Robert Columbus moved to running back. He's been able to catch the ball well out of the backfield. Freshman back Rodarrius Brooks added 30 pounds, according to his tweets, and could earn some carries along with fellow freshman Courtney Rowell.
There's plenty of carries to get, so it won't be just one back. Someone doesn't have to replace Church, they just have to be able to get 4 to 5 yards a pop and help move the chains while holding on to the football.
4. Cut down on the big plays on defense
EIU's defense wasn't bad last season, they just gave up a few too many big plays throughout the season. A couple of big plays helped Austin Peay stick with the Panthers last season before EIU won. Tennessee State scored on a 56-yard pass and a 44-yard pass to take a lead in the fourth quarter last season before EIU went on to win. An 87-yard pass and a 77-yard run helped Murray State pull off the upset over EIU.
It's no secret, a defense never wants to give up a big play. Big play also gives the opposing team more confidence and usually starts to get things going on offense. Dameron has emphasized this during interviews and during practice. The defense has plenty of talent and is good enough to get off the field in timely fashion.
5. The wide receivers have to step up
The last two seasons, running back Devin Church led the team in receptions. No wide receiver had more than 21 receptions all of last season. It's clear the Panthers need more production from their receivers this season.
There's been some turnover with graduation and a couple of players transfer in. Tight end Addison Bounds, who can split out, could see more catches and has been a dangerous tool over the middle of the field. Junior Aaron Gooch looks to take the next step this season.
The person that's shined the most in practice is junior college transfer Alexander Hollins, who keeps catching touchdowns in practice. If he can be a playmaker for the Panthers, it opens up the other receivers. Penn State transfer Javon Turner had a good spring and the Panthers are hoping for more out of Dennis Turner this season. But it seems Hollins might be the key for the group and it seems like he has good chemistry for Kimble.
If EIU can pass the ball better, it's no secret, it opens up the running game and the whole offense is more dangerous.