With football Saturdays quiet this fall, EIU staff works toward returning roar to young Panthers
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Like other football stadiums across the state, O’Brien Field in Charleston remains silent for the most part in a month that normally features Saturday games.
There have, however, been workouts for second-year Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing’s Panthers. In the midst of a fall camp that resembles traditional spring practice, Cushing and his staff forge ahead.
“I’ve talked with a number of coaches around the country and I think the overarching issue is there’s still a bit of uncertainty of what’s next,” Cushing told Prairie State Pigskin. “All of us in this role are trying to create that long-term plan and reverse engineer it to get yourself to exactly the right place. We’re in that space where we’re getting week-to-week information.”
Despite the uncertainty, Cushing and his staff have a plan in place.
“So, using that as a preface, what can we accomplish? What does this make possible? We can get really strong. We’ve got a young offensive and defensive line. We’re going to play football again, and we’re going to play football this spring. Let’s get real strong. We’ve taken that and allowed our strength coach Joe Orozco to run with it.
“But we’ve also said okay, since we’re in the novel situation with the 12-hour rule different than the (traditional offseason) eight-hour rule, what else can we also incorporate football-wise? Normally we’re not into this football-wise. Twelve hours is brand new to everybody. It’s trying to find a balance.”
Youth being served
EIU’s roster has been remade significantly since Cushing took it over from Kim Dameron, who coached the Panthers from 2014-2018. In fact, the official EIU roster lists nearly 80 players that are either true freshman, redshirt freshman, sophomores or redshirt sophomores. In addition, a significant number of the remaining players labeled as upperclassmen are either transfers or players with limited game experience.
Like other coaches with youth-laden teams, Cushing strives for the future.
“Let’s get strong,” he said. “We know we’re going to win games on defense by running to the ball. Make them snap it again. Run to the ball; get ‘em down. We can work on that right now. That’s not hard if that’s our key to victory.
“Then, on offense, let’s protect the football and there’s a million things that go into protecting the football. It’s pitching and catching very cleanly. That’s suffered the most when our players were apart. That timing. That detail of that route to catch it. That dragging of the foot so it’s inbounds versus it’s out of bounds. Center-to-quarterback exchange. Handoff exchanges. It’s all those little things that add up to protecting the football. These are all possible for us to work on.”
Cushing, a former Northwestern assistant under both Randy Walker and Pat Fitzgerald, also sees the value in simplifying the message to a young team.
“Keep the main thing, the main thing. Coach Walker would say that all that time. Everybody always took it as he meant the football; he meant it in everything,” Cushing said.
Lessons from the fall
Cushing has also tuned into the schools that are playing this fall, including Ohio Valley Conference opponents Austin Peay and Eastern Kentucky.
As with any football coach, he isn’t just watching as a fan; Cushing is trying to learn things that will help his team.
“The first thing is I see is how difficult it is to prepare for the game,” Cushing said. “I don’t care how many spring practices you had or how many fall practices you have with contact, the (actual) game is just different. You saw it in that opening game with Austin Peay and Central Arkansas. Sloppiness with the football. Because as soon as the lights go on, everything ramps up a million percent.
“So what have I learned? We have to put players in challenging situations. We have to do a little more unscripted. Not that it can ever simulate game speed. But, we have to push the envelope in that we have to create situations where everybody on the field has to react and just play. As controlled as you want to make practice, there’s a safety aspect to that too. If you don’t learn how to hit and be hit, come the first game, the ball is going to pop out or you’re not going to get that guy to the ground because you’re just not used to getting players to the ground.”
Cushing added that he might just spring a surprise on not only his players but also his assistant coaches in the middle of a workout.
“I might just put the ball down in a certain spot, rattle off the situation and see how everyone reacts in the moment. There are times you just can’t plan for; you have to be ready to go,” he explained.
Nevertheless, Cushing came back to player safety.
“We have to be extremely careful as coaches not to overdo the physical aspects of the game (this fall),” he said. “You can’t tackle every day (in practice). That’s not practical. But we have to do more than zero. We have to use the same appropriate ramp-up from the sports science perspective that we would from a conditioning perspective. We’ve got to do some of that hitting and tackling to learn how to play the game well.”
Falling forward into spring
When the Ohio Valley Conference made its decision to push its traditional fall football season to spring, EIU also made the decision to not play any autumn nonconference games. The annual Mid-America Classic rivalry game with Illinois State, for example, went by the wayside when both universities agreed not to play. This marks the first fall since 1943 — when the nation was in the grips of World War II — that Eastern will not play football in a calendar year.
Yet, Cushing remains focused on the present and what he can do to prepare his team for the day when football returns to O’Brien Field with live games against actual opponents. Additionally, he remains steadfast in a goal he shared the day he was hired as the 25th head coach in EIU history.
“How are we going to win the OVC?” Cushing said. “We’re going to be really strong. We’re going to run to the football on defense. We’re going to protect the football on offense. If we keep those as the main thing, then whatever comes next — all the uncertainty in the world — if we get better at those things, then when I put my head on the pillow, I feel good.”