NASHVILLE — Ever since Scott Parr was hired as the new offensive coordinator by Eastern Illinois University back in the winter, the talk has been about the 'Air Raid' offense he brings to head coach Kim Dameron's season.
With the start of the season a little more than a month away (EIU opens at Arkansas on Sept. 1), Dameron is ready to stop talking about the Air Raid. He wants to see it in action especially after getting a sample of it during the spring season.
"It's what makes it exciting. It's time to go to work and we are a week and a half away from reporting in. After the spring, I was even more excited knowing what the possibilities were," said Dameron at Monday's Ohio Valley Conference Media Day at the Embassy Suites in Nashville. "Over the summer and with the kids, what they've done and getting ready, they've done a lot of work on their own and they sacrificed a lot to stay in Charleston, whether they were in school or not, to work out and keep that timing with the quarterbacks. That's what we have to do, have a good fall camp and keep people on the field to develop that rapport."
EIU finished 6-5 overall last season and 5-3 in the OVC, which put the Panthers in third place. In the media poll, which was released last week, EIU was picked fifth in the conference. In Monday's coaches poll, EIU was picked to finish fourth. Jacksonville State was picked to win the conference in both polls.
The Panthers landed three players on the All-OVC preseason team - running back Isaiah Johnson, wide receiver Alexander Hollins and defensive back Mark Williams.
Johnson is key because the Air Raid just isn't about the passing game. Dameron thinks it will help Johnson have a big year as well. Last season, Johnson rushed for 683 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
"One thing that will help is having Isaiah. We are changing to a more fast-paced passing attack. ... They are going to see a lot of coverage and that opens up the running lanes and I am excited to see how that works out for Isaiah this fall."
Johnson is one of many pieces the Panthers feel they have on the offensive side to take advantage of the Air Raid. Hollins was named to the All-OVC team after hauling in 47 receptions for 694 yards and seven touchdowns. He thinks he is just scratching the surface and he's set a lofty goal for the season.
"I think this year I can get 1,000 yards," Hollins said. "I just need to make sure I am running the right routes with the right yardage and win one-on-one coverage. I talked to (former EIU wide receiver Erik Lora, who works in EIU's sports department) twice and I've talked to him about his experience. I just gotta keep working harder."
After Hollins, Aaron Gooch returns at wide receiver. He was second on the team with 43 receptions for 361 yards. Running back Darshon McCullough caught 14 passes last season and rushed for 368 yards. James Sheehan moves into the starting tight end role and he caught 13 passes for 123 yards.
Hollins said there's plenty of room for all of those players, and more, to have big seasons with the Air Raid.
"With this offense, it opens up opportunities for everyone. Gooch and I led the team in receptions and we want others to have opportunities because it makes it harder for the defense and it makes it more fun for the fans," Hollins said. "We are loaded at receiver. You have me, Gooch, Nick Atoyebi and Robbie (Lofton) and some newcomers. Then having Isaiah and Darshon, we have the talent."
One key area that isn't settled on offense is at quarterback. Scotty Gilkey Jr., who will be a redshirt sophomore, started five games last season and is in a battle with Tulane transfer Johnathan Brantley and Navarro College transfer Harry Woodbery. Dameron said he's figured out who is one through three going into fall camp, but he won't name the list because it could change before the first game against Arkansas. Dameron did say two quarterbacks will probably play against the Razorbacks.
"I am going to name the starter when I know who it is. It's like I was telling one of them, you never quit competing and never know when that chance will come, but I really feel good about the position and our overall depth at the position," Dameron said. "Whoever it is, they are going to be very prepared and will have a great chance to be successful."
There hasn't been quite as much talk on the defensive side of the ball since there have been no big changes and while the unit did lose a few key players to graduation, there's plenty of talent back, including senior defensive back DySaun Smith.
"I think we have everything that we need going into the season," Smith said. "We have some young guys that can step up and make it happen and we have everything we need. With Iziah Gulley and Ray Crittenden at safety, just play their role and they picked Tray (Mitchell's) and Bradley (Dewberry's) brains. They know how to duplicate it well. I believe I can lead the defense and lead the guys with Crittenden, Gulley, Williams and guys like Josh Price have the defensive line. We have the pieces that we need."