Eastern’s first year head coach Adam Cushing made bold predictions in his introductory press conference last winter, declaring that during his tenure at Eastern the Panthers would win both an Ohio Valley Conference championship and a national championship. While both of those predictions are clearly meant for years in the future, a media poll released on Friday showed that media members from around the OVC believe Cushing and company have a long way to climb before achieving those lofty goals.
The 15 media members polled predicted Eastern to finish 8th out of nine teams in the Ohio Valley Conference in 2019, ahead of only Tennessee Tech. Jacksonville State was slated to win its 6th straight conference title.
The placement for Eastern should not come as too much of a surprise, last season Eastern finished with a disappointing 3-5 conference record, seating them in 7th place at the end of the season. On top of coming off a lackluster campaign which saw Eastern let go of head coach Kim Dameron, this year’s Eastern team is blanketed by question marks.
The biggest question mark of course will be the performance of Eastern’s almost entirely new coaching staff which includes Cushing, new offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski and new defensive coordinator Chris Bowers. The group comes with a lot of pedigree and is confident that it can turn things around in Charleston, but a preseason poll is exactly that, a preseason poll and the product these coaches will put on the field remains to be seen.
The roster itself will look quite a bit different as well this season for Eastern, and like the coaching staff, will feature a lot of new faces in new places.
The most noticeable difference for this Panthers team will undoubtedly be the absence of wide receiver, and arguably the team’s best player last season, Alexander Hollins who graduated and signed an NFL contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Hollins was second in the OVC in receiving yards and touchdowns last season and his departure almost certainly was looked at heavily by those polled. The receiving core itself next season will be largely untested as the No. 2 and No.3 options from last year’s squad, Aaron Gooch and Nick Atoyebi, also graduated from the program.
The offensive line too will be almost entirely new as only guard Travis Buckwalter will return as a starter to that unit. Josh Doyle, Aaron Callaway, Grant Branch, Johari Branch and Eliki Tanuvasa all left the program either by way of graduation or transfer.
All of this change coming off a 3-5 record last season makes it difficult to place Eastern very high at all in the preseason poll, but by no means should it be set in stone that an 8th place finish is Eastern’s ceiling.
The Panthers will return both of its starting quarterbacks from last season Johnathan Brantley and Harry Woodbery, along with defensive mainstays Dytarious Johnson and Mark Williams. A strong recruiting class headlined by defensive lineman Dominic Moore will also be welcomed into camp to join a roster littered with young players that will be looking to fill open voids all over the field.
If the new coaching staff can live up to its hype in year one and Eastern’s young roster develops ahead of schedule, then the 8th place prediction could end up being laughable by season’s end. But all of that will depend on just how much production the new coaching staff can ring out of its untested roster.
The question marks around this year’s Eastern team are plentiful, but Eastern has the tools to answer those questions for better or worse than its preseason ranking suggests.
JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].