Division I-AA Panthers bring everyone back
But 20-year coach Bob Spoo will miss the first several weeks
FOURTH IN A SERIES
WHEN Eastern Illinois plays football at Hawaii on Sept. 30, the Panthers might be without their veteran coach, Bob Spoo.
Spoo, 68, is scheduled for surgery Tuesday for an undisclosed medical problem and will miss the first four to six weeks of the season, the school's athletic department announced yesterday.
Assistant head coach Mark Hutson will handle the team in his absence.
Spoo brought the Panthers to Hawaii twice before, with UH winning both times. Hawaii ended a 19-game losing streak with a 31-27 victory in 1999, and Tim Chang outdueled Tony Romo 61-36 in the 2002 season opener.
Spoo, starting his 20th year as EIU coach, missed two days of practice last week to have a "minor medical procedure" at a St. Louis hospital, but was on the sidelines for Saturday's final training-camp scrimmage.
Depending on how they handle the new situation, the Panthers appear poised to make a strong run at defending their Ohio Valley Conference championship. Eastern Illinois was undefeated in league play and finished with a 9-3 record. Spoo was the conference's coach of the year.
Most of the starters return.
The offense is led by running back Vincent Webb, who rushed for 1,129 yards and 15 touchdowns on his way to second-team all-conference accolades.
Quarterback Mike Donato passed for 1,747 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Donato has so far fended off a spirited challenge from JC transfer Cole Stinson for the starting job.
Just the threat of 6-foot-6 receiver Micah Rucker will keep some of the heat off Webb and the rest of the running game.
Rucker, a transfer from Minnesota, has given the EIU defense -- one of the best in Division I-AA -- fits throughout fall camp.
"He has been making great plays all through practice and today he went out and scored three touchdowns for us," said Hutson, who is also the offensive coordinator, after the Panthers' last scrimmage. "He's a big, physical player who continues to work hard every day and is always moving his game forward. He definitely allows us a few more options on offense."
Four starting offensive linemen are back, including Steve Sobolewski, who moves from guard to center, and tackles Eric Johnson and Anthony Rubican.
Defense is the Panthers' real strength.
All three linebackers are back. Clint Sellers turned in a monster 2005 season with 121 tackles, including 13 for loss, and five interceptions. Lucious Seymour wasn't far behind with 115 stops, and Donald Thomas had 82 from his spot in the middle.
Left tackle Tim Kelly anchors the line, and safety Tristan Burge is joined by cornerbacks B.J. and Ben Brown on the corners.
EASTERN ILLINOIS PANTHERS
2005 record: 9-3 (8-0 Ohio Valley)
Head coach: Bob Spoo (119-98-1 in 20 seasons at Eastern Illinois)
* NCAA I-AA first round, Charleston, Ill.
||at Indiana State
||at Southeast Missouri
||at Murray State
||at Tennessee State
||at Jacksonville State
||Southern Illinois *
Starters returning: 16
Last meeting with UH: Hawaii 61, Eastern Illinois 36, Aug. 31, 2002, at Aloha Stadium
||at Illinois State
||at Eastern Kentucky
||at Tennesee Tech
The Associated Press contributed to this report