Vaunted Vontae Illini's Best Athlete

The Fighting Illini football team's athleticism has been upgraded considerably since Coach Ron Zook arrived three years ago. Rashard Mendenhall, Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn are three prime examples. But the best all-around athlete on the team is probably sophomore cornerback Vontae Davis.

A product of Dunbar High School in Washington, D. C., Davis was named a Freshman All-American and Honorable Mention All-Big Ten after his excellent play last year, and he improved on it this year. Big Ten coaches voted him to their All-Big Ten 1st team, and he was a semifinalist for the coveted Jim Thorpe Award. Top cornerbacks never lack for confidence, but even Vontae was surprised by the honors he has received in 2008.

"I set goals for myself, but I kind of shocked myself. I didn't expect this early to be a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. But to be a defensive back, you've got to play every down because it's one of the toughest positions on the field."

Vontae battled some minor bumps and bruises throughout the season, and his aggressive hit on an Ohio State player gave him a concussion that forced him to sit out the Northwestern finale. But he still topped all his season totals from 2006 with 63 tackles, 3 tackles for 5 yards in losses, four interceptions and 8 passes broken up. Davis says he is feeling well now.

"My health is good. I had some nicks, but that's football. I fought through it and played through it. I just wanted to play my best to help the team."

One early highlight for Vontae was the Penn State game. With his high school coach and numerous family and friends visiting from Washington, D. C., Davis escorted high school teammate Arrelious Benn into the endzone on a long kickoff return. Benn is a fast player, but Vontae caught up with him to help eliminate Benn's last pursuer.

"I just wanted to spring him to the endzone," stated Davis with typical modesty. "A guy was chasing him, so I just ran as fast as I could to make that block."

Fans clamored for Davis to return more kickoffs, but Coach Zook withheld him on occasions when he was tired from playing defense. Vontae agreed with Zook's decision.

"It's kind of tough. A kickoff is right after a defensive series. It depends on what type of drive we give up. If we get one of those physical type drives, you're not going to go straight back on kickoffs."

Still, Vontae looks forward to his opportunities.

"I enjoy it alot. Anytime I touch the ball, I know what I can do with it. We shock ourselves with what we can do with the football in our hands."

Champaign-Urbana is becoming a second home for a number of top D. C. area athletes. Davis looks forward to seeing another former Dunbar teammate, tackle Reggie Ellis, join Benn, Nate Bussey and himself at Illinois.

"For me to come here on a losing program and start winning now, it's a lot easier to recruit. Ron Zook can do it when we're losing, so imagine how he'll do when he wins. Reggie is working out at home right now, and he'll come here in January."

Davis is humble in interviews but supremely confident on the field. When teams started picking on him part way through the season, he saw it as an opportunity and was not surprised.

"No, that's football. I know how that goes. If they're going to throw the ball to me, I've got to make a play on the ball. You're going to get challenged. That's how you find out if you're a good db. If you get challenged and make a play, it let's you know you've got confidence in yourself and you won't get down."

Vontae has faced a number of outstanding receivers in his two years of college, but he refuses to identify any for special praise.

"There were no receivers that were especially tough. They win some, you win some. You just try to maximize your wins."

Raw freshman Marcus "Miami" Thomas filled in when Davis endured his concussion and became one of the stars of the big Ohio State victory. Vontae and his fellow defenders helped Thomas improve throughout the season.

"He looked up to us in practice and got better. We just tried to talk to him a day at a time. He's got the athletic ability to be a good player, and we're just trying to help him out. The main thing we try to teach him is consistency. A db has to be consistent week in and week out."

Vontae is pleasantly surprised to find himself celebrating the New Year in California.

"Yeah, I'm real thrilled. In the Rose Bowl, you put all the other games behind you. It depends on how you perform in the Rose Bowl. We knew we were going to be a pretty good team, but going to the Rose Bowl in my second year after going 2-10 is a tremendous change."

Vontae Davis knows USC is loaded with All-Americans and will pose a major challenge for the Illini. But he is not willing to back down from the challenge.

"They're a good program with a lot of high-profile guys. We just want to play January 1st and see what happens."

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