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New Coordinator, Same QB for Eastern Illinois
Ironically, a Green Bay Packers fan appears to have settled the quarterback unrest at Eastern Illinois.
Last March, things seemed rather in place at Green Bay with Brett Favre riding into the sunset for a happy story and his apprentice Aaron Rodgers ready to take over only for a new soap opera to be born in the summer.
Eastern Illinois was the team ready to replace quarterback Bodie Reeder who had gotten the Panthers to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs but not past the first game.
Coach Bob Spoo was planning to join college football’s movement to the spread offense with a running quarterback and on the February signing day you almost sensed Cincinnati Colerain High School’s athletic Doug Reynolds was steps away from taking the opening snap for the Panthers’ season opener his freshman year.
Then Roy Wittke — a Wisconsin native who roots for the Packers anytime other than maybe when they go against the Dallas Cowboys with quarterback Tony Romo tutored by Wittke at Eastern — returned to the offensive coordinator position he filled for Spoo from 1990 through 2002 before a five-year major college tour through Arkansas, Arizona State and Northern Illinois.
If anyone could have altered Spoo’s no-doubt-about-it-we’re-changing commitment to the running quarterback and spread offense, it was the man he has numerous times called his best assistant coach ever.
“You know my respect and admiration for Roy Wittke,” Spoo said. “Roy is a better coach now than when he left. He’s more well rounded.”
Wittke started surveying the Eastern football players he had inherited.
“The bottom line is that Bob and I have talked a great deal and we have to do what gives our offense the best chance to be successful,” Wittke said.
“The bottom line is you play to the strength of the guy pulling the trigger.”
Through spring practice, the trigger guy remained Reeder, who made his entrance with a third-game relief appearance nearly leading a comeback against Illinois State, got the starting nod the following week and stayed there through the rest of Eastern’s 8-4 season ending with the first-round playoff loss at Southern Illinois.
Reeder’s 143.8 passing yards per game ranking sixth in the Ohio Valley Conference and 138.8 yards per game total offense putting him seventh in the league did not necessarily ensure his starting job heading into his junior season.
In fact, even after spring practice Eastern entertained possibilities of getting a Football Bowl Subdivision transfer who chose to go elsewhere.
Maybe partly because he never created an uproar, Reeder has weathered all these off-season storms.
Reeder is happy about his new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and the system he brings.
“Coach Wittke, he’s probably forgotten more football than I know,” said the former Mahomet-Seymour star who walked on at Wyoming and then transferred to Eastern after a redshirt year.
“We’re not a spread team. We’re a drop-back passing team. I would definitely prefer what we’re doing right now. I fit well into the system.”
That is not to say the 6-foot, 208-pounder is not looking to improve upon last year’s totals in which the sack victim finished with minus-61 yards on 24 rushes.
“I need to be able to run the football better because that’s always something a quarterback does,” Reeder said.
Other quarterbacks on campus still might have Reeder on the run for his job.
“There’s no controversy here,” Spoo said. “Bodie is our guy coming in. Hopefully, there will be some competition. There are some young guys who will give him some competition.”
Reeder sees no reason to throw a Favre fit over that.
“It’s open no matter what position you play,” said the EIU quarterback who was 170 for 260 passing with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions last year. “I don’t think our group is any different than any other. It’s a competition.”
Among those ready to compete is redshirt freshman Luke Hockaday, whose future at Eastern also might have been revived by the arrival of Wittke with a pro-set approach rather than looking for the running quarterback.
“It’s definitely pro-style,” said Hockaday, who two years ago passed for 2,844 yards and 39 touchdowns leading Maroa-Forsyth to an IHSA Class 2A state championship. “I feel that suits me personally.
“Really, everything worked out with coach Wittke. He’s a very knowledgeable coach. If you look at his track record, he’s done really well developing quarterbacks. And he’s a good guy as well.”
Hockaday makes no predictions about his bid for playing time after a redshirt season.
“All I can do is worry about myself and control what I can control, practice, come to meetings and let the coaches make the decisions,” the 6-2, 181-pounder said.
Even the quarterbacks who seemed tailor-made for the abandoned spread offense using their running talents are not complaining.
D.J. Brown, another redshirt freshman, praised Wittke as the new coordinator
“He’s a great coach,” Brown said. “He really knows what he’s talking about. He breaks the offense down for you.”
Listed as an “athlete” when signing with Eastern in February of 2006, Brown spent time as a wide receiver and defensive back as well as quarterback for a 7-3 North Chicago High School team but gives no indication of leaving Eastern’s quarterback race for playing time at another position.
“As far as I know, me and Luke are battling for the backup quarterback spot,” Brown said. “There’s been no talk about any other position. I haven’t really thought about anything other than playing quarterback.”
Neither obviously has Reynolds, who came to watch spring scrimmages at Eastern and then spent the summer here.
“I’m trying to learn the offense as fast as I can,” the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Reynolds said. “Bodie and Luke are helping me learn the plays.
“I’m getting ready. I think camp is helping a lot. I’m seeing what it’s like. The offense is real technical. Being here for the summer helped me.”
Part of the new Cincinnati area connection brought to Eastern by defensive backs coach Bobby Babich, Reynolds chose Eastern before Wittke was hired but saw no reason to change his mind after his arrival.
“Coach Wittke was actually the first coach I met here,” Reynolds said. “He’s a great guy.
“I came here because it’s a winning program. Once coach Wittke was here, it was an added bonus.”
Reynolds, who passed for 708 yards and ran for 371 for a 12-1 Colerain team in Ohio last year, remains in Eastern’s future. He just might get some learning time now rather than being thrown into the fire in a freshman year when the Panthers’ first two opponents are coming off bowl seasons.
Maybe Brown and/or Reynolds could be inserted into games for run situations.
Maybe those two or Hockaday could move their way into a starting role just as Reeder replaced Cole Stinson, returning from a postseason playoff starting role last year, and as Stinson replaced incumbent Mike Donato following a playoff berth the previous year.
Reeder’s status could be tested in a season that starts with FCS teams Central Michigan and Illinois.
But he has already been through off-season trials and is not asking other quarterbacks not to contend now.
“As I said during the spring,” Reeder said, “iron strengthens iron.”
New coordinator, same QB for EIU
By Brian Nielsen, The Charleston Times Courier (IL)