CHARLESTON – The guesswork ends tonight.
After nearly nine months operating under a desirable and impenetrable veil of secrecy, Eastern Illinois will reveal its newest brand of football at Chattanooga (6 p.m., ESPN3), this one shaped by first-year head coach Adam Cushing.
Anyone who offered an informed thought on EIU’s offensive and defensive identity was instead putting forth pure speculation. Spending the offseason trying to pin down EIU’s tendencies would have been an exercise in futility. Heck, the quarterback situation will still not be publicly resolved until after the game.
It’s hard to even feel confident about any preseason expectations given all the unknowns. Yes, EIU wasn’t good last season, but how much of that was an indictment on the players as opposed to the coaches? How high a ceiling does the entire group have, and how close to it was last year’s performance? Can Cushing and staff help them reach that ceiling? Only they have a general idea after being around the team and putting together a plan for the last nine months.
Thursday night’s game features two first-time head coaches brought into their roles under entirely different circumstances. Cushing replaced Kim Dameron, whose contract was not renewed after a 3-8 season last year, the lowest point in EIU’s descent from the halcyon days of Dino Babers calling for Jimmy Garoppolo to sling the ball 40 times a game on the way to double-digit win seasons.
Meanwhile, 458 miles down I-57 and I-24, Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright, is tasked with sustaining the competitive program in the tough Southern Conference that Tom Arth fielded last season, a body of work that led Akron to hire Arth in December. The thought is Wright knows the necessary ingredients to do so – he’s a Chattanooga alum and former assistant coach.
It’s a lot of new responsibility for both men.
“It’s a challenge on both ends. I’m sure they’re thinking the same thing down in Chattanooga,” Cushing said. “I think when you get in that situation, it’s exciting, especially for our first game, to say, ‘We’re going to give you some basic camp rules like we’re installing the schemes, but let’s not be worried about they’re going to do.’ Let’s be focused on us. Worry about what we can control and be prepared to adjust. That’s been our mentality. We think we might have some idea of what they might do, but who knows.”
EIU has even more uncertainty to its advantage. Most of its assistant coaches are donning their job title for the first time ever or first time in a long while. EIU will unleash two coordinators with no discernable history readily available to the rest of the college football world.
Film obsession and neurotic study habits aside, offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski has never called a play before. On the other side, Chris Bowers stepped into a coordinator role for the first time since 2010, when his Division II Concord University defense made a living punching out and picking off the ball from everyone else in the Mountain East Conference. Presumably, any video of it is as accessible as the documents that list what lives or doesn’t live at Area 51.
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“They probably found it on VHS tape and found a way to convert it over,” Cushing said.
All told, Wright and Chattanooga are in the same spot as everyone else – taking educated guesses. That’s a helpful advantage for EIU, but one that will go away well before the conclusion of Thursday’s game. Players determine the outcome way more than a little scheme secrecy does.
“It’s a small edge, but in the end, it’s who is going to show up, execute and play with maximum effort,” Cushing said. “We’ve been more focused on getting our guys to do what we’re asking. It’s not a thing that’s been top of mind.”
The staff’s focus remains on having their players ready to go and in a position to best showcase their ability…which is a core tenant of their jobs anyway. They have divulged one theme: don’t expect anything too fancy or complex.
“We’ll try to keep this game plan simple so our guys can play fast and our O-line can play fast,” Kuceyeski said. “There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve done this summer that’s not in this game plan that will be in the Indiana game plan, the Illinois State plan. We have bullets in the chamber and a lot of great scheme.”
For EIU, Thursday is the first of four non-conference games, an oddity that occurs every few years. This year, the season has an extra week due to the way the calendar aligns with the start of the season. EIU’s options were to take a second idle week or schedule a 12th game. The latter was the choice.
The end result is one of the nation’s most difficult out-of-conference slates, ranked the 6th-hardest in the country by HERO sports. After going to Chattanooga, the Panthers play their annual FBS game, this one against Indiana. Following it are contests against regular September foes Illinois State and Indiana State, which are ranked No. 15 and 16, respectively, in the preseason FCS top 25. Illinois State is the only game at O’Brien Field.
“We welcome that challenge,” linebacker Joe Caputo said. “We look forward to this.”
By the conclusion of September, and maybe even by the end of Thursday night’s long-awaited and carefully shrouded debut, the outlook for the debut season of the Cushing era should be more visible.
“We’ll see what we’re made of quickly,” Cushing said. “Our goal is to step into conference play prepared to compete for the conference.”