Speed Aplenty in Illini Secondary

Ron Zook inherited an Illinois football team that lacked speed and has slowly begun to add that to the roster. And although not every position includes the speedburners Zook wants, his corners may be as fast as any in the country. Corners and safeties are the topic in this look at the Illinois secondary, the third in a series.

Vontae Davis may be the best athlete on the Illinois football team. At least among the top two or three. Travon Bellamy may be just as good. Chris Duvalt, in a short race, could possibly beat ‘em both.

And with that, we begin our preview of perhaps the most talented area of the Illinois football team – the secondary. It is a group filled with promise, with athletes reminiscent of the ones Ron Zook signed at Florida that wound up winning the national championship last year. It is about speed, speed and speed. And, oh yeah, speed.

Interesting, the secondary is really broken down into two areas – young corners who can really run, but could use a little more experience and veteran safeties who have great experience, but could use just a little more speed. Overall, though, it is a position that should give secondary coach and co-coordinator Curt Mallory plenty to work with.

CORNERBACK: Simply put, Vontae Davis is a first round draft pick waiting to happen. He is big (6-0, 205), fast, tough, fearless and solid technically. What else is there? His coming out party was last year's Ohio State game, in which he blanketed wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who went on to be the seventh overall pick in the NFL Draft. How good do his coaches think he is?

"We need to get him on the field fast," Ron Zook told me last year. "Because I know we'll only have him three years."

The other cornerback spot is held down by Travon Bellamy, another true sophomore who is fast, tough, and, like Vontae, has good size (6-0, 194) for the position. Bellamy was listed as a safety, but was really the nickel back last year. While departed Alan Ball and Vontae played outside, Bellamy took the slot receiver against three wide receiver sets.

But the wild card here is the explosive Duvalt (5-11, 171), who is not nearly as big as the other two, but is lightning fast, has an incredible first step that lead to an interception and long return for a touchdown in the spring game and may be the best playmaker of the bunch. Duvalt will be the nickel corner, but actually play outside, sliding Bellamy inside to cover the slot receiver.

Redshirt freshman Antonio Gully (6-1, 193) is the fourth corner.

SAFETY: Although this position lacks the raw speed Illinois has at corner, it is the most experienced position on the team. Three seniors, starters Kevin Mitchell (6-0, 209) and Justin Harrison (5-11, 207) and backup Justin Sanders (6-1, 202) have logged enough playing time to know the defense well as well as tendency of Big Ten receivers. All three are very physical – Harrison is particularly good against the run; Mitchell known for bringing the lumber on receivers who come across the middle.

Sanders is a JUCO transfer who looked great early last season, seemed to struggle some in mid-season and rebounded to finish the season strong. He also is a special teams ace.

In time, redshirt freshman Garrett Edwards (6-2, 210) will factor here, but for now, keep an eye on freshman Bo Flowers (6-2, 222), the former professional baseball player who is back trying football as a 24-year-old freshman. He is a guy Zook really likes.

Overall, Illinois could be very good in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. And if the recruiting class is what many expect, they will add to those numbers.

ZOOK COMMENT: "Vontae could be a special as anyone I have seen play that position. And the guys around him are getting better and better."

FRANGIE TAKE: Absolutely love the cornerbacks. The last team I saw with two big, physical cornerbacks like this was the 2003 LSU team with Corey Webster and Travis Daniels. Both are in the NFL and the Tigers won the national title. But I worry about the safeties. They are around the ball, but they aren't fast. That means it will be tough to erase mistakes if the corners make any."

Next position: Offensive line.

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