Expectations high for Panther football

Junior+quarterback+Jalen+Whitlow+runs+the+ball+down+the+field+during+the+Panthers%27+homecoming+game+against+Tennessee+State+on+Oct.+25%2C+2014+at+O%27Brien+Field.++The+Panthers+beat+the+Tigers+28-3.
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Expectations high for Panther football

Junior quarterback Jalen Whitlow runs the ball down the field during the Panthers' homecoming game against Tennessee State on Oct. 25, 2014 at O'Brien Field.  The Panthers beat the Tigers 28-3.

Junior quarterback Jalen Whitlow runs the ball down the field during the Panthers' homecoming game against Tennessee State on Oct. 25, 2014 at O'Brien Field. The Panthers beat the Tigers 28-3.

Jason Howell

Junior quarterback Jalen Whitlow runs the ball down the field during the Panthers' homecoming game against Tennessee State on Oct. 25, 2014 at O'Brien Field. The Panthers beat the Tigers 28-3.

Jason Howell

Jason Howell

Junior quarterback Jalen Whitlow runs the ball down the field during the Panthers' homecoming game against Tennessee State on Oct. 25, 2014 at O'Brien Field. The Panthers beat the Tigers 28-3.

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

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The kickoff of the fall semester coincides with the kickoff of another Panther football season. Despite a record of 5-7 last year, Eastern opens the season with a lot of expectations, as most preseason polls have the Panthers ranked heading into the season.

The Football Championship Subdivision Coaches poll has the Panthers ranked 25th, which is the third-straight year the team has been ranked in the preseason.

Eastern returns 16 starters from last year’s squad, including a quartet of seniors in quarterback Jalen Whitlow, running back Shepard Little and preseason All-Americans linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and defensive tackle Dino Fanti.

The Panthers were picked to finish second in the Ohio Valley Conference, which released its rankings at the OVC Media Day in Nashville earlier this month. However, head coach Kim Dameron said the Panthers still need to play their best in each of those conference matchups.

“Every Saturday you better show up and have your A-game ready to go because anybody can jump up and beat anybody in this conference,” Dameron said. “We feel like we can compete with any team on our schedule, but there’s not a team on our schedule that can’t beat us if we don’t show up.”

Eastern’s schedule this year features non-conference games with Western Illinois, Big-Ten foe Northwestern and the first home game of the year against last year’s national runner-up, Illinois State. The Redbirds were ranked second in the preseason coaches poll and are the only ranked nonconference opponent the Panthers will face this season.

The Panthers will face OVC-favorites Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky late in the season at home. Dameron is hoping that those two games will matter at the end of the year.

“This year, as far as our travel schedule is concerned, it’s quite a bit better, easier. And the fact that we have Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky late in the year coming to Charleston, we feel good about that,” Dameron said. “Hopefully we’re in the position at the end of the year, to where that really matters.”

Whitlow and Grugier-Hill also said it is important that Eastern gets off to a good start, especially after the Panthers got off to a 1-5 start last season. Eastern won its next four games after that start to get themselves back into the OVC-championship race.

“We’re looking to go into the season with a fast start, better than last year, maintain that through the whole year and try to get more wins.” Whitlow said.

Whitlow appeared in 11 games last year, including 10 starts, after winning the job before OVC play began. He rushed for 792 yards and passed for 2,075 yards last year, while breaking the school’s single game and single season rushing yards by a quarterback.

He set the school record for consecutive passes without an interception with 163. His teammate, Grugier-Hill, was twice named a preseason FCS All-American during the offseason.

“Our biggest challenge is bouncing back from last year. It’s always hard to have a hard year, but at the same time it drives you,” Grugier-Hill said. “I really feel like it’s going to help us and gives us an advantage.”

Last year he earned all-OVC honors after leading the Panthers with 97 tackles, which ranked No. 10 in the conference. He had a season-high 19 tackles in a win at Tennessee Tech last season.

“Our defense is going to be solid. All our defensive guys are close, our whole team is close, but defense especially,” Grugier-Hill said. “We’ve got guys who’ve been together since freshman year. It’s going to be real exciting.”

The Panthers will open the season in a Thursday-night showdown with in-state foe Western Illinois at 6 p.m. on September 3rd at O’Brien Field.

 

Blake Nash can be reached at 518-2818 or [email protected]