Travon Bellamy played in the first eleven games for the Fighting Illini football team last fall as a true freshman, with only an injury preventing him from playing against Northwestern. Bellamy was listed at safety but was primarily the nickel back when the Illini expected pass.
A graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt high school in Greenbelt, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D. C., Bellamy played at the same school as fellow Illini defensive end Will Davis. He was a consensus first team All-Stater as a senior, garnering 11 interceptions and three defensive touchdowns.
Travon continued that success by intercepting two passes last fall, returning one 47 yards against Purdue and galloping 41 yards for a touchdown against Wisconsin. He also recorded 15 tackles and two passes broken up.
He did all this despite having to make the difficult transition from high school to major college football. Playing defensive back in the Big 10 requires being isolated with outstanding receivers, any of whom can embarrass you at any moment with a long touchdown grab. It takes a special player with uncommon confidence to play the position.
"I have always had confidence. My mother and father always tried to instill that in me. I always have to walk with confidence. I can't let anything get me down."
Travon claims he wasn't scared to play as a freshman.
"No, it wasn't scary, this is what I want, this is what I dream about. It's great to get that one year experience under my belt so now for this next year I know what to do and what to expect."
However, he does admit it took awhile to relax and adjust to the speed of the college game.
I would say it took about 4 to 5 games. The first game, I was like "Wow" seeing all the fans in the stadium. I was about to throw up. It's a different level, man, so you have to step your game up."
That first road trip to Rutgers must have been difficult for you also.
"Yeah, the Rutgers game was pretty tough. I found an East Coast game exciting because my family could come see the game. I don't think we practiced as hard that week, so it showed up on Saturday. It would have been a much better game if it had been later in the season."
Bellamy has been moved to cornerback this spring and is running first string at the graduated Alan Ball's position. Is it a difficult transition for him?
"It's extremely fun. I played corner in high school, so it was nothing new for me. I love having a lot of pressure on me. That's part of the game, plus the competition. Being on an island is very challenging going one on one with the receiver, just you and him. I love it. That's part of the game."
Travon now moves from cornerback to nickel back when the Illini defensive team expects pass. How do the responsibilities of cornerback differ from those of a nickel back?
"At nickel, you take one of the best receivers on the field, that's the inside receiver, the slot receiver. Inside is where most offenses put their best receivers. As a nickel back, my main job is to take away the inside receivers and keep their gains to a minimum. As a corner I am just checking outside receivers. There's no real big difference. It's all man to man competition, and I just have to step up to the plate."
But with fellow cornerback Vontae Davis creating such a strong reputation last season, how does Bellamy feel about the likelihood of being picked on by opponents?
"Yeah, Vontae is my roommate and we talk all the time. I told him next season I know they are going to pick on me because you have established yourself. But that is what I want. If they're going to pick on me, they're going to pay for it."
Do you look forward to more interceptions returned for touchdowns?
"Yeah, I have plenty more in mind, especially with three more years ahead of me."
Bellamy is just one of a number of Illini players from the Washington, D. C. area, making Champaign-Urbana seem like D. C. West.
"Yeah, all the ballers from the East Coast. It's extremely fun. It makes it more comfortable and exciting to have everybody want to come here and be a part of this program. We've got more recruits coming in next year so I can't wait. It's going to pop off."
One possible future recruit is recent practice visitor Lamaar "Flash" Thomas, the lithe speed merchant runner/receiver/returner from Fort Washington, Maryland (Friendly).
"We played with the same Boys and Girls Club when we were younger. So I already knew about him. He's fast, but of course I can cover him. You've got to have that swagger about you that you can cover anybody."
Does Bellamy think the improvements shown last year will carry over to this season?
"Yes, we all believe. That's what Coach Zook and all the other coaches are doing, recruiting players from winning programs. So we are bringing a different attitude. Last year as you saw we were close in all our games except Rutgers. We now know we can play with anybody, we just have to step up, work hard on our technique and have an attitude and swagger about us on Saturdays and just bring it.
And his team goals for this season?
"We expect nothing but the best. We're trying to go bowling, plain and simple."
What are Travon's personal goals for the future?
"I am majoring in Sports Management with a minor in Business. My main goal is the NFL, so I can support my family. If I keep working and keep God first, it will come. Of course, if I don't make it into the NFL, or even if I do, I want to pursue a career in business. That's my minor right now, but I'm thinking of switching it to my major. I'm not sure yet, of course."