Panthers to lean on defense early

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Panthers to lean on defense early

Red-shirt senior defensive back Antoine Johnson prepares to tackle an opponent during Eastern's game against Minnesota on Aug. 28, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

Red-shirt senior defensive back Antoine Johnson prepares to tackle an opponent during Eastern's game against Minnesota on Aug. 28, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

Jason Howell

Red-shirt senior defensive back Antoine Johnson prepares to tackle an opponent during Eastern's game against Minnesota on Aug. 28, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

Jason Howell

Jason Howell

Red-shirt senior defensive back Antoine Johnson prepares to tackle an opponent during Eastern's game against Minnesota on Aug. 28, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

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As a former defensive coordinator, Eastern football coach Kim Dameron does not have a problem relying on the defense to win football games. With several new faces on the Panthers’ offense this fall, he said the Panthers will probably have to rely on its defense early.

“I feel that you always lean on your defense early in the season,” Dameron said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. It’s been that way since Moses was a baby.”

Dameron has a lot of confidence in the defense, which returns All-American senior linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and All-Ohio Valley Conference senior defensive tackle Dino Fanti. Both players were named captains in a team vote on Wednesday.

Fanti said he has noticed a slight change to this season from last season.

“As a senior, I feel that there’s more weight on my shoulders for the team’s success,” Fanti said. “If we fail, I feel like it’s on me, but other than that it’s just do your job and everything will take care of yourself.”

Fanti has second team All-OVC honors in the last two years, and he ranked third in the conference last year in tackles for loss with 15.5. He currently has 33 tackles in his Eastern career, which is the eighth-best in school history.

“We’re a fast defense. We’ve kind of changed some positions around so we can fit our personnel better,” Fanti said. “But our defense is real fast and is going to make a lot of plays.”

One of those changes is at middle linebacker, where junior Seth McDonald has established himself as the starter, following the graduation of Adam Gristick. Grugier-Hill said he believes McDonald will fill in the role very well.

“Seth has been working hard all offseason,” Grugier-Hill said. “He’s going to be a fine linebacker for us this season.”

Grugier-Hill comes into this season as a First Team All-OVC linebacker from last season, after leading the Panthers with 97 tackles last season. He has already been named to three preseason All-American teams this season.

“He’s doing great, had a fantastic camp,” Dameron said. “He came in in really good shape and had a great summer. I’m really looking forward to a good year for him, which hopefully he can put together.”

The Panthers fell victim to several big plays last year, which Fanti said they are trying to eliminate. However, the team’s ability to create takeaways has Fanti feeling good about its chances this fall.

“As a defense, we were good at takeaways and making plays,” Fanti said. “But they kind of got us on big plays, and that’s what we’re trying to focus on.”

Other than Grugier-Hill and Fanti, the Panthers also return redshirt senior safety Jourdan Wickliffe and senior defensive back Anthony Goodman. That duo combined for 113 tackles and six interceptions last season, for an Eastern defense that ranked third in the OVC.

“I feel like we have a good unit coming back, and they’re going to have to be somebody that we have to lean on,” Dameron said. “Maybe we will jump out of the gate early, offensively, which will be great. But who knows?”

 

Blake Nash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]