Eastern football eager for Thursday kickoff

Blake Nash, Staff Reporter

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The calendar has turned from August to September, which means it’s time for another season of Panther football.

Eastern will face Western Illinois University on Thursday at 6 p.m., in its first game of the season, and the first of three games that’ll be played in the state of Illinois. Eastern coach Kim Dameron is excited for the season, specifically the fact that the Panthers won’t have to travel far this year.

“Travel-wise it’s great. The furthest place we go is Nashville,” Dameron said. “So it’s just the opposite of last year. Last year we were road warriors. We had to get on a plane a few times, but this year we don’t have a plane ride.”

Eastern will travel by bus to all its away games, including that road trip to Nashville on October 17, where the Panthers will face Tennessee State.

Dameron hopes that the Panthers will have success later in the year, so that home contests with Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State in November will be important in terms of an Ohio Valley Conference Championship and a playoff berth.

“If we can get on a hot streak and get rolling, it means something,” Dameron said. “If we can’t than it really don’t mean much.”

However the Panthers must first turn their attention to Western Illinois this week. The Leathernecks finished the 2014 season with a 5-7 record, exactly the same as the Panthers did last year. The Leathernecks defeated two ranked teams last year in Missouri Valley Conference play, and even had the national runner-up team Illinois State on the ropes.

“All I know is they had Illinois State down last year, and Illinois State did come back to beat them, but I and everybody else in the country knows how good Illinois State was last year,” Dameron said. “That’s the team I’m expecting to see.”

Another member of the Panthers eager to see the Leathernecks is red-shirt senior defensive tackle Dino Fanti. Fanti said that during the preseason the Panthers were focusing on eliminating big plays, after giving up a fair share last season. The addition of speed on the line has Fanti feeling good about the Panthers accomplishing that goal.

“We’ve got a lot more speed on the field this year than we did last year,” Fanti said. “You’re can expect that we’re going to have a better pass rush with that.”

Red-shirt senior running back Shepard Little returns as the Panthers leading rusher this season, after gaining 797 yards on 124 carries last season. Little will be joined by junior transfer Korliss Marshall and redshirt junior transfer Devin Church. Little said he has confidence in Eastern’s backfield-by-committee this fall.

“I feel like anybody on our offense who touches the ball can put up some big numbers,” Little said. “I think we can run it and throw it, and now our job is go and execute.”

Eastern returned to practice early in August for fall camp and has been preparing for the season ever since. Captains were named last week, including Fanti, Little, senior linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow. Fanti is one of the Panthers who cannot wait to hit somebody new on Thursday.

“I’m sick of seeing the same color. I’m ready to hit a different color than what we’ve been doing at practice,” Fanti said. “It gets old hitting the same guy every single day, especially when he’s your buddy.”

This will be the third straight season that the Panthers have been ranked heading into the season opener. Eastern is ranked No. 25 in the Football Championship Subdivision Coaches Poll. The first three games at Western Illinois, Northwestern and at home against Illinois State will mark the first time since 1944 that the Panthers will open the season against three ranked teams.

 

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