CHARLESTON — To Eastern Illinois head football coach Kim Dameron, the term Air-Raid offense is a bit misleading name. Because of the name, it's assumed that the passing attack is the bread and butter of the offense. However, the ground game isn't forgotten piece in the Air Raid offense.
So the running game won't be ignored at EIU this season.
"It's a name that basically gives the illusion that we are all pass but I've defended this offense before and believe me, it's not," Dameron said. "Our run game comes off our pass game and if someone wants to load up on the run, we will throw it and vice versa."
Dameron consistently points to the 2013 season, the last year with Jimmy Garoppolo as the quarterback. Dino Babers was the head coach and Sterlin Gilbert was the offensive coordinator for EIU. While they didn't run the Air Raid offensive specifically, it was a spread offense. Garoppolo passed for more than 5,000 yards in his final season at EIU with 53 touchdowns.
The ground game was just as potent that season. As a team, EIU rushed for 3,040 yards and averaged 217 yards on the ground a game. The Panthers almost had two 1,000-yard rushers that season. Shephard Little rushed for 1,551 yards and 15 touchdowns. Little had a 7.1 yards per carry average. Taylor Duncan added 988 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"When Jimmy was here and Shep was the back, he was getting a ton of five-man boxes because they were trying to play coverage to try and defend the pass. That's what you do, you read the box and you hand it off," Dameron said. "I feel like with the number of running backs that we have and the talent that we have and the talent that we hopefully have, I think we will be in pretty good shape there. What we have to do is we have to run the whole thing and one works off the other."
EIU running back Isaiah Johnson is familiar with success running backs can have in the Air Raid. Johnson follows West Virginia a bit, which runs about the same kind of offense under head coach Dana Holgorsen, who was a member of Leach's staff at Texas Tech back in the 2000's. Last season Justin Crawford rushed for 1,082 yards for the Mountaineers which gave him back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
"I was always a fan of West Virginia and I was close to walking on there after high school, so I've always been familiar with that offense," Johnson said. "The most film that we've watched is mostly Parr's old school Navarro to learn about this offense."
Johnson, a senior, could be the Jordan Crawford of EIU's Air Raid offense. Last year Johnson rushed for 683 yards, which was the fourth-best total in the OVC. He added five touchdowns and rushed for a season-high 236 yards against Murray State, which is the eighth-best single-game rushing total in EIU history. He was named to the Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference team back in July.
"I was happy to get it. It definitely puts a little pressure on my name and gives me some expectations to live up to. They say pressure turns into diamonds and I am just trying to make a positive out of it," Johnson said. "That's the biggest goal right there, I want people to know that I am capable of being recognized for that award. I feel we can bring it as a team and personally I feel like I can bring it to the next level and show everybody what we can do."
Dameron feels Johnson proved he is capable of handling big workload last season.
"He had a heck of a year last year and he's very versatile. He can run inside with power. He can bounce it outside and get out on the perimeter," Dameron said. "The most important thing is he pass protects well and he also catches the football. He's a possible three-down back for us."
Still, the Panthers need some quality running backs behind Johnson. In the year Little rushed for 1,551 yards, he split carries evenly with Duncan. Both running backs had 217 attempts.
"I think we have kids that have put in some work. We did a good job in recruiting of adding to our depth and talent level a little bit," Dameron said. "It's going to be fun to watch how it all comes out as the season progresses."
There are five other running backs on the roster besides Johnson. Junior Darshon McCullough has played 10 games over the past two seasons. As a freshman, he rushed for 138 yards and he added 368 yards on 73 carries last season. Junior Robert Columbus moved to running back last season and had 31 yards on 13 carries.
EIU added Jamal Scott, who appeared on the latest season of Last Chance U, from Independence Community College. He rushed for 363 yards and seven touchdowns. His breakout game was against then-defending national champion Garden City. Scott rushed or 180 yards and two touchdowns in Independence's win over Garden City.
Freshman Ivan Webb was originally signed with Missouri State but asked for his release in May. Webb committed to EIU in June and he has been seeing reps in practice already. Webb rushed for 2,842 yards (fourth-most in the nation) and 35 touchdowns for Schlagle High School in Kansas.
Nolan Dean joined EIU last season and redshirted. He transferred from Davenport University and started his career as a walk-on at Northern Illinois. Dean, a redshirt sophomore, played at Chicago Nazareth and rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his senior season in 2014.
Johnson feels there's a lot of talent in the running back group this season.
"They definitely make the group competitive. Jamal comes in and he was a good junior college guy. Darshon, you know what he brings to the table. He's very elusive and brings something to the table that no one else has," Johnson said. "Rob, he knows what to do and knows what to bring to the table. Nolan is a sleeper and is a good all-around back. They all keep us on our toes and I think that's what makes us better at the end of the day, knowing we are all fighting for the same spot."
EIU's Air Raid offense will see its first game action when the Panthers travel to Arkansas for the season-opener on Sept. 1.
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