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Illinois FCS programs have challenges and promise
There is nothing quite like preseason projections to fuel the optimism of college football coaches.
In the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Western Illinois and Eastern Illinois create various storylines to describe their 2011 outlooks.
Can Illinois State lift its program from the logjam of mediocrity in the Missouri Valley Football Conference? Will Southern Illinois emerge from its rare sub-.500 status in 2010? Can Western Illinois continue to progress after the most amazing turnaround in its school’s history last year? And will Eastern Illinois be able to send off its legendary coach in winning fashion in his final season?
Here are capsules of those school’s challenges and opportunities:
The Salukis are ranked 19th nationally in one preseason FCS poll after finishing last season with a disappointing 5-6 record. It was SIU’s first losing season since 2002 and just the third losing season for coach Dale Lennon in his 14-year career.
Lennon is counting on junior quarterback Paul McIntosh from Evansville, Ind., to lead the offense. He completed 10 of 13 passes for 141 yards and a 51-yard touchdown pass to John Lantz in last Saturday’s first fall scrimmage at Saluki Stadium.
“That’s a positive, now I hope the defense steps up and makes life miserable on the offense,” Lennon told reporters after the scrimmage. “That is the give and take you look for as a coach. One of our strengths (offensively) will be that we have some playmakers. That has been an emphasis since last year. We need more explosive plays, and I think we have guys who can do that.”
Among the potential playmakers will be tailbacks Jewel Hampton, Steve Strother and Shariff Harris. Defensively, Lennon likes his team’s speed and explosiveness as it prepares for its opener at Southeast Missouri on Sept. 3, followed by a Sept. 10 date at Mississippi.
Junior college transfer Eze Obiora and redshirt junior Kenneth Boatright are defensive ends to watch. And Chance Coda was a second team All-MVFC pick last season at the position. Sophomore safety Boo Rodgers is considered the fastest player on the team.
“We are hungry and that’s the whole thing,” said Lennon, who is entering his fourth year at SIU. “When I say we have something to prove, we’re being realistic here. We’re not good enough to just show up and win it, and the theme for the year is ‘Earn It.’ I don’t want any of our players with any sense of entitlement. I want that hunger within the team that is genuine.”
The Redbirds and Eastern Illinois will meet for the 100th time this season and the game has been re-branded as the Mid-America Classic with a traveling trophy at stake.
“This game is a very special one to both schools and I have been fortunate enough to be on both sides of the ball,” Illinois State coach Brock Spack said at a news conference. “We feel blessed to be a part of the 100th game in the series (CSN, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 1 in Charleston). It’s a thrill for me to take the field against one of my mentors in this business in coach (Bob) Spoo, and it’s a great opportunity for everyone involved in this game. The trophy was the one thing this rivalry was missing, and I’m sure it will bring a little more excitement to the game.”
Spack was a member of Spoo’s first staff at Eastern Illinois from 1987-90.
The Fighting Leathernecks head coach Mark Hendrickson enjoyed the most dramatic turnaround in school history, improving from 1-10 in 2009 to 8-5 last season.
Hendrickson, whose team was 5-3 in Gateway Conference play, was national runner-up for the Eddie Robinson “Coach of the Year” award.
For the last eight years Western Illinois has had a running back gain 1,000 yards, and junior Caulton Ray did it last season, ranking 35th nationally with an average of 82.7 yards per game
After going winless at Hanson Field in 2009, the 2010 Leathernecks were 6-0. Hendrickson hopes the new surface (Matrix Turf) will enhance the team’s performance.
Western Illinois returns six starters on offense and six on defense.
Legendary Panthers coach Bob Spoo announced last November that this would be his last season after 25 years.
Spoo is looking to lead Eastern Illinois to its 14th NCAA FCS playoff appearance. He ranks fourth among Division I coaches with the longest tenure at one school, trailing Penn State’s Joe Paterno, Albany’s Bob Ford and Villanova’s Andy Talley.
Spoo, a three-time Chicago Catholic League coach of the year who was 51-9-2 from 1967-72 at Loyola Academy, is the winningest coach in Eastern Illinois history (140-113-1) and the active leader in victories among Ohio Valley Conference coaches. He has led the Panthers to 11 winning seasons in the last 15 years. But EIU finished 2-9 overall last season and 2-6 in the OVC. The Panthers are picked to finish seventh this season.
By Fred Mitchell, Chicago Tribune