DECATUR — Eisenhower football has had its struggles this season — but bright spots abound.
The Panthers (0-5) are still searching for their first win of the season — and their first win since Week 3 of the 2017 season — but while last year's roster fell apart as the season went on, there is a profound difference this year.
"It is way different this year," Eisenhower wide receiver Karon Shelley said. "We haven’t won a game yet, but you can tell there is a brotherhood between us and love between us because no one has quit.
"Last year we ended the season with 19 players, but we still have all the kids now, which is good."
While the victories haven't come yet, the Panthers' offense has been on the prowl. Shelley, along with junior tight end Caleb Patton, have developed into the favorite targets for sophomore quarterback Brylan Phillips. Phillips has become one of the most prolific passers in the H&R area, with 993 yards passing and 10 touchdowns. Shelley (345 yards receiving, three touchdowns) and Patton (353 yards receiving, three touchdowns) are joined by sophomore receiver Jorden Jones-Thomas to create a strong nucleus whose potential reaches far beyond the 2019 season.
"What a lot of people don’t understand is that we aren’t expecting a lot of wins early," Phillips said. "We had a new coach last year and a new coach this year, so here have been a lot of changes. We are keeping a level head and keeping our momentum going into next year."
Following last year's 0-9 campaign, Shelley attended summer football camps to work on his footwork while Patton spent time in the film room.
"I’ve been watching film and seeing where to go and how to better get into routes," Patton said. "Having a good wide receiver like Karon and a good quarterback like Brylan, they helped me in how to get into it and what I can do with good communication skills and they have helped me with being a better route runner."
The competition between Shelley and Patton have pushed both receivers to match the other's success.
"I know Karon is younger than me but when I get on the field it is a competition between me and him," Patton said. "To me, it feels like he is the best wide receiver on our team. We feed off each other. If I score, you know he his going to come back with a ‘I’ve got to score.' It’s like a competition between us, but it is all love. He’s my brother."
Phillips has seen the pair's improvement this season and has gotten a glimpse of the Panthers' bright future.
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"Those are two great receivers — some of my best targets during the game," Phillips said. "A lot of my check-downs go Karon first and then Caleb, but Caleb is just as good as any tight end or slot receiver in the conference. Karon could be the best receiver in the conference, so having those two on the field is amazing for me."
The inexperience of much of the Panthers' roster has been the key to many of the team's difficulties this season.
"Learning — that is our focus right now," Eisenhower coach Steve Thompson said. "As far as production on the field, it is not where we want to be yet.
We make a lot of young kid mistakes — a lot of penalties, turnovers and we don’t protect the ball as well as we should.
"But we are positive with the kids and they are positive with each other and keep trying to get better every day. Eventually it is going to sink in because we are a young team. When will it finally click? I’m not sure."
One strength of the offense is Phillips' ability to throw together a solution with his receivers if a play breaks down.
"We are working on route running but we are improvising pretty well," Thompson said. "When the play breaks down, we do the scramble drill as well as anybody. Brylan keeps his eyes up field looking for targets and our kids have an innate ability to slide and find that open area and it kind of works out for us."
Eisenhower face the one-two punch of Central State 8 powerhouses Rochester (5-0) on Friday, then Sacred Heart-Griffin (3-2) in Week 7 before facing MacArthur (3-2) in Week 8 at home.
It won't be an easy stretch, but the Panthers are ready.
"I know some kids would lose hope but for the most part on our team there is no chance to go into the game and thinking we are going to lose this game," Phillips said. "Sometimes you have to deal with the losses and pray for the wins."