Column: 2018 a prove it season for Eastern football team


File Photo | The Daily Eastern News

Eastern quarterback Harry Woodbery fires a ball in a practice during spring camp last season. Woodbery is a transfer from Navarro Junior College.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

So much of the Eastern football team’s 2017 season, from its 6-5 record to an offense that was anemic in the passing game, had more to do with a series of bad luck circumstances and an injury carousel at quarterback than it did with roster talent or coaching.

In an attempt to cure the passing game, which was the second worst in the conference last season, the Panthers brought in three new quarterbacks. That group is composed of two transfers and a freshman and will be joined by a new pass-first offensive coordinator in Scott Parr.  Eastern also returns a strong defensive unit led by coordinator Cary Fowler who has expectations for his unit to be one of the strongest in the OVC.

Despite all the changes Eastern is facing on the offensive side of the ball this season, 2018 will be by no means a transitional year for the Panthers, instead it has “time to prove it” written all over the walls. 

Since finishing with a 12-2 record in Jimmy Garoppolo’s last season at Eastern, the Panthers have finished 5-7, 7-5 and 6-5 in each of the last two seasons, 19-11 in OVC play over that time. Despite that, the confidence of the program has never faltered or waivered, and this season it should be no different.

During drills at one practice this fall, Fowler did not hold back when he let his team know he was tired of finishing 6-5 and did not plan on finishing 6-5 this season. 

That is the mentality this team has, and rightfully so. The roster is talented, the coaching staff is confident and with Jacksonville State going through some transitions at quarterback themselves, the OVC could be as vulnerable as ever. 

Whichever one of the five quarterbacks Eastern has in camp this fall wins the starting job, they will be thrown into the fire week one with a matchup against Arkansas, in a game that will pit the Panthers up against one of its biggest FBS opponents in school history. 

Right now, however, the starting quarterback race seems to be narrowed down to Tulane transfer Johnathan Brantley and Navarro Junior College transfer Harry Woodbery. Both players flashed a lot of potential in last year’s spring football game and even now as fall camp pushes toward the week one showdown in Arkansas, it seems the race is getting tighter rather than moving toward a conclusion. 

Head coach Kim Dameron said at OVC media day that both Woodbery and Brantley will get playing time against Arkansas, in what should be a live action audition for both players to prove they should receive the starting nod under center. 

All-conference wide-receiver Alexander Hollins is also back after catching seven touchdowns and racking up 694 yards last year. He will be joined by redshirt-senior Aaron Gooch, who will likely handle punt returns as well, creating a very dynamic and athletic duo for the quarterbacks to throw to.

Fellow all-conference player Isaiah Johnson returns as well at running back, as does back up Darshon McCullough. They will be joined however by Independence Community College transfer Jamal Scott, whose power running style adds an extra dynamic to the backfield. 

The offense welcomes lots of returning players back; now it is up to one of the new quarterbacks to step up.

Last season the offense only averaged 17 points per game, and if one thinks about just that number alone, the six wins achieved last season seems like a reach. But, that is where the defense comes in. 

Last year the defense plain and simple kept the Panthers in games. This season the defense wants to be even better, but if everything goes to plan, will have less pressure to perform than last season. 

All-conference defensive back Mark Williams is back to hold down the secondary and linebacker Dytarious Johnson returns as well, but this season does so with a lot of buzz and excitement around him. 

If the defense can once again hold up its end of the bargain and the changes on the offensive side of the ball come to fruition, then Fowler’s statement of the team not going 6-5 can very well go from a fall practice motivator to a winter football reality. 

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]