Lead. Follow. Get out of the way.
That is the theme that Eastern Illinois football coach Adam Cushing is using with his team over the summer and one that he hopes will resonate with them heading into his third campaign in Charleston.
It hasn’t been the start that Cushing’s Panthers envisioned in his first two years. EIU has won two games during that timeframe, but now is the time to step up.
The Panthers lose two key offensive contributors, in leading rusher Jordan Smith (55 rushes for 278 yards in 2020) and quarterback Harry Woodbery (completed 46 percent of his passes for three touchdowns) but do return a wealth of pieces on that side of the ball.
Sophomore running back Jaelin Benefield will look to take the bulk of the snaps, while fellow sophomore, and quarterback, Otto Kuhns will likely hand him the ball.
As freshmen in the abbreviated COVID season, one saw the field a lot (Benefield), while the other stood on the sidelines and continued to learn the system (Kuhns).
Benefield played in five games, carrying the ball 59 times for 258 yards and one touchdown. Kuhns played in four games, completing 44 of his 87 passes while throwing five touchdowns to four interceptions.
The good thing about Kuhns is that he won’t have much turnover in the wide receiver room. Nearly all of the receivers he’ll target are returning, are a year older, and are hopefully becoming more privy to the system.
Every receiver who finished with over 100 yards is back, led by graduate slotback Jay Vallie. Last year, Vallie had 18 catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns.
Redshirt sophomore DeWayne Cooks Jr. will be another primary weapon for the sophomore signal-caller from Carroll, Ohio. Cooks Jr. had 15 catches for 241 yards and one touchdown.
All in all, there are options. Now, for Cushing, it’s about them understanding that and capitalizing.
“It’s players taking over the standard of the program; it’s leadership from within,” said Cushing to reporters at Ohio Valley Conference Media Day Monday morning on a Zoom call. “As coaches, empowering and pushing the leaders to take that over, to do it themselves.”
Picked to finish last in the conference in the preseason rankings, Eastern can change that. All they have to do is finish.
The Panthers led heading into the fourth quarter against Tennessee State (led 17-15 and lost 21-20) and Tennessee Tech (led 28-10 and won 28-20) and were tied with Murray State (tied 27-27 and lost 41-27), leaving Cushing with some room for optimism.
On Monday, Cushing showed that optimism, as he smiled from ear-to-ear, knowing that the season is right around the corner, and the main reason wasn’t because of the work his team continues to do over the summer on the field. To him, it goes far beyond Xs and Os.
“What an exciting time to be a football fan,” Cushing said. “Two football seasons in the same calendar year. This is fantastic. We’re pretty excited about it; I know that our team is thrilled right now to be on the doorstep of the football season. I think that the reason we’re all excited here at Eastern Illinois and excited for this season is what our players have continued to do, to embrace success in all aspects of life. We set a team record for GPA, 63 guys on our roster over a 3.00 GPA, 18 with a perfect 4.00 GPA — all records for our program — and found ways to give back to the community.”
Setting records, no matter on or off the field, will make any coach happy. It makes them even happier, though, once they start translating that on the field and turn close losses into victories.