Two of the most interesting quarterback stories in the NFL involve alumni of Eastern Illinois University.
Can the polarizing Tony Romo take the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl before he retires? Can Jimmy Garoppolo be the New England Patriots’ successor to Tom Brady?
Both Romo and Garoppolo won the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy, putting EIU football in the national spotlight a decade apart.
Yet the two Panthers teams in the wake of Garoppolo have not been quarterback-focused as much as dangerously diverse, combining a multi-tasking signal-caller with strong running backs. During the eight-game 2014 Ohio Valley Conference season, EIU was second in the nine-team league in total offense, scoring offense and rushing behind junior running back Shepard Little and dual-threat junior quarterback Jalen Whitlow.
In the 12-game regular season, EIU was also second to OVC champion Jacksonville State in rushing and total offense. Little was eighth in FCS with an average of 6.4 yards per carry, and despite missing two games with a hamstring injury was fourth in the OVC with 797 rushing yards. Whitlow was fifth with 792.
The stage seems to be set for the backfield duo to lead the Panthers to a strong bid for an OVC title and the FCS playoffs. EIU, despite a 5-7 record in 2014, is ranked 25th in one preseason FCS poll and were second in the OVC preseason poll behind Jacksonville State.
Yet, there will be stiff competition for both Little and Whitlow from FBS transfers.
From Arkansas comes running back Korliss Marshall, who left the Razorbacks after two suspensions for off-field issues. In 2014 Marshall gashed Northern Illinois for a 97-yard kickoff return TD and also rushed for 119 yards and a TD in 6 games.
From Illinois comes running back Devin Church, who totaled 57 rushing yards in two seasons with the Illini.
From Syracuse comes quarterback Mitch Kimble, who appeared in three games for the Orange in 2014, his redshirt freshman season. His best showing flashed his potential, as he ran for 42 yards and a TD and passed for 37 in a loss to Duke.
All three FBS transfers are expected to be contenders for starting spots, and show how FBS transfers are impacting FCS rosters. OVC champ Jacksonville State had five FBS transfers, while Whitlow himself was a Kentucky recruit before transferring in the summer of 2014. FBS transfers to FCS can lay immediately, unlike inter-FBS transfers.
For Little and Whitlow, it’s a case of what doesn’t take your job can make you stronger, right?
“With us three back there, starter is up for grabs to be honest, and I love the competition we bring between each other,” said Little, the 2013 OVC rushing leader and all-OVC pick. “I love it. I think it’ll make me better and make them better and make our offense better too. It’s all about team. We want to win the conference and then go all the way to the national championship and win it.”
Panthers offensive coordinator Greg Stevens says his backfield returners understood the staff’s quest for depth. Three RBs graduated, and Little tweaked his hamstring again in the spring. It’s a high-impact and crucial position.
“At that position you have to have two or three kids because they take a lot of hits,” said Stevens. “We told all our kids we’re going to do what we have to do to make the team better. (Little) knew coming in this spring we needed to upgrade the running back position. Competition makes people better.”
Stevens is excited for more than the backfield’s depth. Each of the top three backs has different strengths, and he envisions formations with all three on the field. Church can play slot receiver, for instance. He said Marshall will return kicks as well.
“We’ll get through camp and that’ll work itself out who the starter is,” Stevens said. “We’re expecting all three to play a lot and make a lot of plays.”
The offensive line will rotate seven or eight players, Stevens said. Returning second team all-OVC performers Nick Borre and Evan Kanz lead the way for a squad recovering from losing three starting seniors at center, left guard and left tackle. Jimmy Lowery, a freshman All-America in 2013, returns after missing seven games last season with an injury.
“We have more depth than we had last year,” said Stevens of the blocking unit. “Yet to be seen if as a starting five we’ll be as good as last year, but I think we can get to that point.”