Experience, leadership to play key role in Eastern’s season

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

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When the Eastern football team takes the field Aug. 31 at Indiana State, it will be bringing out seven returning starters on offense and defense.

The offense is led by redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Kimble and redshirt senior tight end and preseason First-Team All-OVC selection Addison Bounds, while the defense has 2016’s second-leading tackler senior linebacker Nick Horne and preseason First-Team All-OVC selection redshirt senior defensive end David Johnson.

Kimble was named second-team All-OVC and Horne was named to Third-Team All-OVC . The Panthers had eight players named to the preseason All-OVC list.

Sophomore running back Darshon McCullough, junior left tackle Grant Branch, senior center Louis Vailopa and junior defensive lineman/linebacker Josh Price were all named to Third-Team All-OVC.

The offensive line blocked for former running back Devin Church’s 1,000-yard season, something Church was grateful for during and after the season completing the goal he set.

Of course preseason predictions mean nothing except shining a brighter light on a few individuals, but what is going to mean something for the Panthers this year is the returning starters and the leadership roles players are holding, Kimble said.

“I think with the leadership we have, more guys are bought in,” Kimble said. “We won’t be satisfied with average play and the younger guys understand that too.”

Average play is what hurt Eastern on numerous occasions last year and as coach Kim Dameron referred to it as “shooting ourselves in the foot.”

The wins are there for the Panthers’ taking this year, just as it was last year.

Church was a big part of the Panthers’ offense and Kimble knows replacing a guy like him will be tough as he was the leader in rushing and receiving, but a few key targets are returning for Kimble.

Bounds at tight end and 6 foot 4 was a big target for Kimble and strong on the line as well. He hauled in three touchdown passes and racked up 188 yards.

Redshirt junior Aaron Gooch who appeared in 10 games last year will be lining up at receiver again this year. Gooch did not score a touchdown but he connected with Kimble and former quarterback Austin Green 19 times for 177 yards.

Senior Dennis Turner is back as well, he was third on the team in reception yards with 272 behind Church and Paul Gossage, who transferred to Minnesota in the offseason.

Turner scored two touchdowns for Eastern last year.

Kimble dealt with a series of injuries last year, sidelining him four games last year, but is ready to do whatever it takes, whether it is rushing or passing the ball this season, he said.

“At the same time I understand I need to do a better job avoiding unnecessary hit,” Kimble said.

QUICK LOOK AT THE OVC:

The Panthers have three non-conference games before their first OVC contest Sept. 23 against Southeast Missouri at home.

Eastern was predicted to finish fourth in the OVC standings, and by no surprise Jacksonville State is picked to win the conference again as they have not lost an OVC game since 2013. That is 24 straight wins.

The last OVC loss for the Gamecocks was Jimmy Garoppolo’s Panthers. But that match up is long in the future.

Sean Hastings can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]