CHARLESTON – A 10-minute glimpse of Eastern Illinois’ first fall camp practice was enough to reveal one major coaching staff requirement. Even just a listen would have gleaned one non-negotiable, and reminders to adhere to it pierced the air throughout the 2.5-hour session Thursday morning.
Run. Everywhere. Anyone who dared jog off the field after a drill or a rep of 7-on-7 had a coach in his ear before he even reached the sideline, booming “That’s jogging!”
Welcome to fall camp under Adam Cushing and staff.
'It's like Christmas," offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski said.
Already, Cushing’s debut season has a distinct tone, by all accounts dissimilar than prior years. EIU’s 2019 team may not turn in different results than the ones in recent history – the outside expectation after EIU was picked eighth in both preseason OVC polls. If EIU is going to outperform those expectations, it’ll require more than a culture change, fresh start or any other buzzword and coach speak that often gets tossed out around this time of year, the height of “talking season.”
But if one day is any sign, this group is unafraid of a challenge and the grind of climbing out of the bottom of the OVC standings. It exudes excitement, eager to prove that a summer of toiling with strength and conditioning coach Joe Orozco has indeed benefitted. It was the opposite of lethargic, with energy radiating as powerfully as the heat waves rippling off the O’Brien Field turf.
“Our guys killed the conditioning test last week, and it showed today,” Cushing said. “We were going really fast and guys were in great shape.”
Get ready for an August at full speed.
“It’s how we’re going to get in great shape by playing football,” Cushing said. “No one wants to condition after practice. If we can do the right thing and run on and off on the field, that’s where we’ll get our conditioning in. It’s going to make it so that games are even easier. The whole goal is that practice is harder than any game will be.”
So how did it feel after a day? So far, the difficulty and strain was as promised. And everyone’s on board with it.
“It was tough today,” said running back Chris Walker, a graduate transfer from Cornell. “But it’ll get easier as we adjust and it’ll make the games easier as well. We definitely need it and it’s something that’ll be enforced.”
“We’re going to wear teams down.”
That is important to hear. Kuceyeski wants to be able to run 80 to 90 plays, a task that requires a commitment to doing everything in the fast lane. As does fielding a defense that can stay on the field against similarly paced teams.
Speed is not all of the focus, though. EIU players spent well over an hour with their position groups straining through technique drills. That’ll remain a key component, Cushing said. As it should. A 3-8 team that fielded a consistently leaky defense does not magically improve simply by dropping a new coaching staff in the building and then doing nothing of note. No one has won games solely on momentum from a change. At some point, there has to be, well, improvement. Better technique, recognition, discipline and more.
“That’s how you become great,” Cushing said. “Mastering those little things.”
If those take a while to come around, or if EIU simply lacks enough guys to do them, that preseason projection is likely to be spot on. With 40 newcomers in fall camp that were not on campus for spring practice, there’s more urgency to grasp the teaching points and commit to them.
Cushing isn’t concerned about a lack of understanding, though. He has raved about his staff’s teaching ability since his January hiring and did again Thursday, when he said he would put that skill against any other staff in the country.
That won’t become evident one way or the other until Aug. 29 at the earliest. What’s clear now, though, is that EIU won’t be jogging toward all the work it has to do.
“They were feeling the intensity,” Cushing said. “I sat at breakfast this morning with a guy who projects to start for us and he said, ‘This is the strongest I’ve ever been, but more importantly I feel like I’m in great shape. I can run forever.’”