Vontae Davis an Emerging Superstar

The Illinois football team boasts a number of top players who are likely to show up on post-season awards lists and will be scouted by the NFL. Perhaps their highest rated player is cornerback Vontae Davis. Despite all the previous success accolades, Vontae is still motivated to improve.

"Yeah, I'm doing well, but I still feel I've got a lot to do. I don't want to just be better as a football player. I want to be a better person, a better student, everything in life you can be better in, I want to be better.

"Right now, I don't think like I did as a sophomore or freshman. Every year you've got something to prove. That's the thing about going to college. You've got to get better every year."

Davis' older brother Vernon was a top tight end at Maryland and the sixth overall draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft. Seeing Vernon succeed with the San Francisco 49ers motivates Vontae.

"Yeah, I feel I have a lot of pressure. My brother being a role model, he expected a lot from me. He wanted me to be successful too. I feel being a younger brother is the toughest situation to be in."

The Washington, D. C. (Dunbar) athlete was a first team All-Big 10 selection last season. The Sporting News has picked him for preseason first team All-American, he's a 2008 Playboy All-American, and he's a candidate for numerous other post-season honors. But he won't rest on his laurels.

"Coaches want me to get better mentally. I should be able, even if the play doesn't come my way, I should still be a difference maker. Just stopping my man sets a tone. And then when you're mentally strong, you are doing things to help the team be that much better."

Coach Ron Zook says Vontae sometimes baits receivers and quarterbacks, feigning weakness to get a ball thrown his way. Great players can sometimes get away with this, but Zook wants him to be more disciplined and consistent in his approach.

"Yeah, at certain times I did that, but I also did what the coaches told me to do. I want to get better on my technique. Once you get into position, then you can make a play on the football.

"But they (coaches) want you to be sure you can do what they teach you to do so you can be in position to make these plays. So what they're teaching ain't wrong. Everything I learned from them helped me make the plays I made."

One thing he didn't need to be taught is his physical style. He loves to send messages with hard hits.

"Yeah, that sets the tone. It can be a game-changing play. It's a simple fact of respect. Another team will respect you if you come out and play hard. The main thing is to compete. You want to let the other team know we're here to play football, and we ain't gonna back down."

The Illini defense is expected to be excellent this year, and the defensive line in particular is receiving high praise in fall workouts. A good defensive line can help defensive backs by pressuring the quarterback on his throws.

"You tell me that, and I'm looking for the football. I think we have a good d-line that can put pressure on the quarterbacks, and that's good for the whole secondary.

"We try to praise them. Maybe we take them out to eat after the games, they're my best friends. Go to Chipotle or something. Or, since they're big guys, they may like McDonalds," Vontae giggled.

Davis and fellow cornerback Dere Hicks are both returning lettermen, but they have some youngsters backing them up. Miami Thomas is sidelined with a shoulder problem, so Vontae feels a need to step up and help prepare freshmen Tavon Wilson, Ashante Williams and Pat Nixon since they will be needed.

"Yeah, when I came out Alan Ball taught me alot, so I can do the same for the young ones. These freshmen coming in, I was in their same shoes. I can teach them things that they don't know to help them become better players. We're a better team now, but you're still going through the same process."

Besides his work in the secondary, the 6'-0", 204 pounder also excels on special teams. Whether it is blocking punts or returning kicks, he plays wherever the coaches want.

"Coach Zook has me blocking punts and stuff. If he wants me to return kicks, I'll do whatever he wants me to do. My main focus is on defense and helping the team."

Vontae loves defense, and he is especially enamored with Coach Zook's defensive philosophy.

"Coach Zook stresses defense. I feel that, for a team to be good, the defense has to do it before the offense. The way he does it is amazing because he does the right things."

As a junior with two years as a starter under his belt, Vontae Davis has a mature approach to the upcoming season.

"I'm looking forward to Missouri, but I'm looking forward to the whole season. I'm really looking forward to how good we can become as a team. I'm looking forward to one game at a time. If it happens good for us, I'll be happy and I'm sure everybody else will too."

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