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ILLINOIS REPORT

Davis knows way around the block

December 31, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

There is something about the act of bursting across the line of scrimmage, sprinting toward the punter, stretching for the ball. Vontae Davis says he was made for blocking punts.

"I've just got a knack for the football," he said. "It's just something that comes natural."

The Illinois cornerback made himself a star on special teams this season, beginning with the opening game against nationally ranked Missouri when he blocked a punt, grabbed the ball and ran two yards for a touchdown.

Three weeks later, he had another block at Indiana, but no touchdown.

"I have a bunch of ball-hungry teammates trying to scoop up my score," he said.

Davis prepares himself in two ways. First, he spends a few minutes before each game watching the opposing punter, counting in his head the seconds from snap to kick.

Once the game starts, he doesn't worry about getting off the line quickly. He says it is more about body control, approaching the punter from the correct angle.

Heading into the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, USC will keep tabs on Davis. Punter Greg Woidneck said he has watched video of the Illini player blowing across the line with an effective up-and-under move.

"I just have to worry about my get-off time," Woidneck said. "Keep it quick."

Davis isn't the only weapon that Illinois has on special teams. All this week, freshman star Arrelious Benn has been fielding punts in practice.

Benn, the Big Ten freshman of the year at receiver, had a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Penn State this season but has been hampered by a dislocated shoulder.

Special teams coach Mike Woodford said he might call on Benn for punt duty against USC.

Coach Ron Zook was meeting with his defensive assistants when the lights went out at Illinois' team hotel in Century City on Saturday night.

Defensive tackle Chris Norwell was watching a bowl game on television in his room. Running back Rashard Mendenhall and receiver Kyle Hudson were playing a video game.

"I was beating him," Mendenhall said.

Something about Mendenhall and California spells trouble. He lived in Culver City for a while when he was young.

"I remember sleeping through an earthquake," he said. "I woke up and the whole house was messed up."

This time, he took the power outage, which lasted a couple of hours, with similar calm. Teammates gathered around emergency lighting in the hallways.

"It was actually pretty fun," Mendenhall said. "Everyone was running around like little kids."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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