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CHAMPAIGN - Tommy Davis simply would have liked to forget about the loss. But the photo painted on a window at Merry Anne's Diner on the busy corner of Neil Street and Kirby Avenue provides a constant reminder of Northern Illinois' 28-22 loss at Illinois two seasons ago.
The window of the 24-hour diner, located just a few blocks west of Memorial Stadium, displays an enlarged portrait of the Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010, edition of The News-Gazette. The bold-faced, all-caps headline "VICTORY" sits above a spectacular photo of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase leaping into the end zone past a few NIU defenders.
The one bright side for Davis: he's not in the picture.
Davis was twice named to the All-MAC team as a returner
"I remember Scheelhaase jumping in the air 13 times that game. I tried to break his neck a couple times, but it didn't happen that way," said Davis, who transferred to Illinois this summer for his final year of eligibility. "He came over, and he was joking around with me about it the other day."
Davis, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound defensive back and kick/punt returner, turned in his red and black Huskies gear - almost his entire wardrobe - for Illini orange and blue.
"I guess like the old saying goes, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em,'" Davis said. "It's nice. I'm settling in fine. The guys are great. It's a good coaching staff. It's a great place to be."
Davis is taking classes at Illinois and working toward a master's degree in education policy, organization and leadership. He will immediately be eligible to play for Illinois this fall due to the NCAA graduate transfer rule.
Illinois hopes Davis, twice named to the All-MAC team as a returner, will help improve its anemic return units. The Illini finished 118th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in punt return average (15.7) and dead last in the nation in kick return average (15.7). Davis brings to Illinois a career kick return average of 22.9 yards and punt-return average of 7.5 yards. He also was a cog on the Huskies defense the past two seasons, tallying 111 tackles, before injuries to his hand and a finger took him out of the starting lineup late last year.
OrangeandBlueNews.com caught up with Davis to talk about his decision to come to Illinois, his thoughts on the Illini coaching staff and what he adds to the Illinois special teams and defense.
Why did you choose to transfer to Illinois for your fifth and final year of college football?
"I'm from East St. Louis. It's two hours from home. While I was up at Northern, my family didn't really get a chance to see as many games as I'd like them to go see. I figured for my last year, it'd be nice if my grandparents and my mom - who can't really travel as much - could come see me play a lot for my last year. It was important to them, and it was important to me."
What will be the hardest transition for you going from playing in the MAC to the Big Ten?
"We played a lot of Big Ten schools in my time at Northern and we always competed against them. So I don't really know if there's a difference. The atmosphere is definitely a lot better, but in my mind football is football. The biggest thing is just going out there and being ready to play regardless of who the opponent is."
Not only did you join an NIU enemy in Illinois, but Coach Tim Beckman was a huge rival of yours the past couple years. Was it difficult to join your past enemy or did you see something in him when you played against him in the MAC?
"Coach Beckman's a great coach. We always knew he was a great coach. Those guys, we went down to the wire every time we played them. So just knowing that and knowing the kind of man he is, I knew it'd be a good place to come and that's why this was the No. 1 school on my list when I did decide to transfer and come a little closer to home."
What other schools were you considering?
"Southern was the other one. That's also two hours from home. I knew Beckman from playing against him at Toledo. Also Coach (Alex) Golesh was at Northern the year before I got there, and he had a relationship with guys like (former NIU quarterback) Chandler Harnish. When he reached out to me, it was just a more comfortable situation. I knew more people here."
You saw Beckman's teams the last three years. What stuck out to you about his teams' schemes or how they played?
"They were like us. At Northern, we prided ourselves on fighting back and never giving up. That (Toledo) team, they'd take you down to the wire every time. They never stopped playing football, and that's the biggest key about winning and having success. You never stop playing. I saw his teams do that. When you see teams play like that, that's a reflection of the coach. That's how I knew he was a great coach, and I have a lot of respect for him."
You were brought here to be a kick returner and punt returner. Illinois really struggled there last year, finishing near the bottom in the NCAA in both categories. Have they told you that you are supposed to be the starter and the guy? If not, what do you have to do to get the No. 1 job?
"I want to come in and do anything I can to help. Obviously, if that's kickoff and punt return, I'm going to come in and I'm going to do that. Not really having a bunch of contact with the coaches (during the summer), you're not really sure what the exact role is going to be. But coming in, the expectation is for you to come in and provide a spark on the kickoff and punt-return game."
Obviously, speed is a big part of the equation for return success. But not everyone has Devin Hester speed. What makes a good returner? What made you so good at it at NIU?
"No fear. You just got to catch the ball and go. It sounds simple. It sounds like, 'Hey, you just catch it and run.' But that's really what it is. You just got to hit it because a lot of times, especially on kickoff returns, things close up so fast because everyone's moving full speed. You really don't have a lot of time to really judge and kind of pitter patter around. You got to catch it and you got to stick that foot in the ground and you got to hit that seem and go."
When you guys score the touchdown, you get all the glory. But how overlooked are the blockers on a return?
"It doesn't happen without them. It doesn't happen. I've seen some of the best return men not get 15 yards on a kickoff return if the blocking's not right. The times where I have score, you can look at the film and you got guys blocking people out of bounds into the Gatorade coolers. That's an important part of the game. Special teams, especially returning, is not a one-man thing. If one guy misses their block down the field or one guy doesn't set his block in the right spot, it doesn't happen."
Illinois also needs depth in the secondary. You started a lot of your sophomore season at NIU and some last year before injuries kind of derailed your playing time. What can you bring to the Illinois defense?
"I just want to come in and contribute. …I obviously will know a lot more when camp starts what the defining roles will be. But wherever you go, you have to come in and earn it. You come in and you earn a spot and you get it. I've played. I feel I can bring some experience to the table. I want to help out some of the younger guys as far as seeing things on the field, and I want to get out there on the field and make some plays and help the team win."
How is transferring in as a fifth-year senior different or similar to coming into a program as a freshman?
"It's actually kind of funny because you pretty much are a freshman. It kind of gives you a second go-around as a freshman. The things that you would've done differently as a freshman, you know how to correct those things, being a fifth-year guy. And you know what to expect. College football is college football. Even though programs play different, the expectation level is still there. As an older guy, you know what coaches expect. You know what your teammates expect. You know how to handle yourself in certain situations. That's definitely a bigger advantage you have as a fifth-year guy as opposed to coming in as a freshman."
What's stuck out to you most about being in Champaign-Urbana, a Big Ten campus and being a part of this program?
"It's just a lot bigger. You can see the history in the program. Northern had a great history, but this goes way, way back. That's one of those things that sticks out the most."
Does everything just feel a little bit bigger, including just the atmosphere around the program?
"Definitely. We had a great fan base at Northern. The stadium was always packed. But you go from a stadium that holds 30,000 to (60,000), it's simply a lot different. Going out there practicing with guys and looking up the stands, you say, 'Wow, it's really here.'"