CHARLESTON — Adam Cushing comes from a Northwestern offense that had one consistent identity: run the ball, and run it often.
Just last year, Wildcats running back Isaiah Bowser averaged 24 carries per game in his final eight outings. Justin Jackson, the Big Ten’s No. 3 all-time rusher, had 1,142 carries in his four seasons at Northwestern from 2014-17.
So it was entirely expected that Cushing, when asked how he sees the identity of his Eastern Illinois offense, revealed he’s bringing a similar affinity for a strong rushing attack to Charleston. It’ll be a contrast from the fast-paced Air Raid scheme EIU ran last season that produced nearly 550 pass attempts in 11 games.
“We’re going to want to run the football,” Cushing said Tuesday after his first spring practice as EIU’s head coach. “That’s how you win games consistently, being able to control the ball. It’s going to start there.”
Johnathan Brantley, EIU’s nine-game starter at quarterback in 2018, can already notice it.
“It seems like we’re trying to be more physical this year,” Brantley said. “I think we’re going to aim to be more balanced.”
That run game commitment is all Cushing will promise, though. The rest of the offense and its tendencies will be determined by the strengths of EIU’s personnel.
“We’re going to take advantage of what our best players do,” Cushing said. “We’re going to put our best players in a position to succeed and do what they do best. You can’t cookie-cutter that. You can’t say it’s going to be this play or that scheme. It’s truly players, formations, plays in that order.”
Thing is, Cushing and his staff will need EIU’s 15 spring practices, and perhaps longer, to gain a strong enough understanding of the current roster’s skill and fortes to decide how to construct the offense. The coaches spent their first two-plus months recruiting, watching film, holding player meetings or meeting as a staff to discuss plays and terminology. Players had winter strength workouts. EIU had not, before Tuesday, actually put on cleats or jerseys since Cushing took over.
“We’ve seen some great things and great work ethic throughout winter,” Cushing said. “But this is the first time we got to see what the players could do as football players. It’s going to be figuring out who we have and then we’ll figure out what we do.”
Spring practices will provide a closer look and expand upon the staff film sessions spent watching the 2018 team. Offense, in particular, requires more up-close examination. EIU lost four starters on the offensive line, four of its top five wide receivers and its leading rusher.
Both quarterbacks who started games last season returned, though, and began competing for the starting job Tuesday. Brantley offers a dual-threat ability most of the Northwestern quarterbacks during Cushing’s tenure in Evanston did not bring. If Brantley wins the job, Cushing said the offense will incorporate his running ability.
“Who is going to give the offense the best chance to control the football, manage the game, keep the ball in our possession,” Cushing said. “Then we’ll play to our strengths. Athletically, we’ve loved what all three guys who have been repping all winter have brought. It’ll be playing into whatever guy emerges.”
Controlling the ball brings up images of a slow-paced offense that is designed to build leads and then keep them. Cushing wants to push through that stereotype, though, and ensure the offense can operate with some tempo as well.
“We’re going to want to have a combination of both,” Cushing said. “Any hitter can hit the fastball if all you throw is a fastball. So the ability to change it up becomes important. But we’ll control the football. If the ball is in your possession, you’re going to win a lot of games.”