CHAMPAIGN — The moment does not elicit a smile from Jon Davis. At least upon first mention.
The junior tight end at Illinois doesn’t grimace in pain when the topic is his troublesome right knee.
The same knee that had to be drained multiple times last year so he could play on Saturdays. The same knee Illinois coaches and trainers paid extra attention to all spring, summer and fall.
The knee isn’t what is causing the quiet, laid-back Davis to bristle. At the mere mention of an event nearly four months ago.
See, Davis touted himself as one of the best among his Illinois teammates at the “NBA 2K13” video game. He could say that. Until Miles Osei beat him in the finals of a 16-man tournament held in early July inside the Illinois players’ lounge at Memorial Stadium.
“I really don’t like to comment on it,” Davis said with a serious expression.
The somber look on Davis’ face soon turns to laughter. Then he shakes his head like he’s still coming to grips with what transpired during that particular game of NBA 2K.
Davis went with the San Antonio Spurs, his preferred team that features his preferred player in Manu Ginobili. Osei countered with the Chicago Bulls and his go-to player, Derrick Rose.
“If it was a best-of-three series, I know that tournament would have been mine,” Davis said. “I haven’t gotten the new one, but I’ll probably try the Spurs out again this year. Whenever I needed someone down the stretch, I’d just go to (Ginobili). To just get away for a couple hours and get away with the guys, too, it builds a little bit more camaraderie. We like to compete in it.”
Needless to say, Osei reminds Davis of his victory that day. Every chance he gets.
“No one thinks of Jon as the champ, and that’s the way I want it,” Osei said with a grin. “I rub it in his face whenever I can.”
Davis hails from basketball-crazed Kentucky and grew up in Louisville. He doesn’t follow Rick Pitino’s Cardinals with more than a passing interest, although he admits his Twitter timeline lights up with updates about Louisville during basketball season. And even though he thinks the Miami Heat will win a third consecutive NBA title this season, he won’t consider playing as the Heat on 2K.
“Honestly, you get no respect if you play with the Heat,” Davis said. “They’re just too good on the game.”
Respect is one trait Davis has earned on the Illinois football team despite not being the most vocal player. It starts with the way he has dealt with his knee issues in only missing one game last year despite having to endure repeated fluid drainings from said knee.
“Not to sound cliche about it, but it’s like watching your own kid get a needle in his knee every week,” Illinois tight ends coach Alex Golesh said. “That was terrible, but it’s what he chose to do. He is one tough kid, as tough as I’ve ever been around.”
Davis won’t faint at the sight of a needle. Yet he’s not exactly excited when he knows one will be plunged into his knee. Davis said he hasn’t had to go through the procedure once this season, although he does spend a few hours each day in the training room making sure the knee stays strong and healthy.
“It’s definitely nice not having to worry about if I’m going to have to have it drained on Thursday before the game,” Davis said. “I didn’t really practice last year on Thursdays the whole season. I’m not a big fan of needles. I try to look the other way.”
Davis has lined up in almost every spot on offense this year for Illinois except receiving snaps. He’s a tight end, but he’s apt to find himself in the backfield, split out wide or with his hand on the ground. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit likes the versatility Davis provides.
“When he’s in there, I think he gives us the chance to do some different-type formations,” Cubit said. “He’s very dependable, and he’s very well-respected by the kids. He doesn’t say much, but he just goes out and works. Not having him in the spring probably hurt him a little because you could try to see what he could do, but you didn’t see it. He’s lasted pretty well. Fortunately, we haven’t had to do without him.”
Illinois coach Tim Beckman has noticed a different type of player this fall compared to what he experienced last season with Davis. He burst onto the scene with a stellar freshman season that saw him catch 22 passes for 187 yards. He finished with nine catches for 88 yards last year, which also saw him produce 102 rushing yards on 21 carries. With five games left this season, Davis has 97 receiving yards on 13 catches and two touchdowns, and he was used extensively out of the backfield last Saturday against Michigan State and against Washington earlier this season.
“He went through a lot of pain last year with the knee,” Beckman said. “The knee’s held up extremely well, so we’re blessed with that. Just to see him play and get after it in practice, he’s Jon Davis. He’s not a guy who’s just trying to make it through a game. You can see that by the way he’s been playing.”
A dislocated shoulder suffered by wide receiver Ryan Lankford might put Davis in a more prominent role in the offensive game plan the rest of the season. Davis said he was uncertain what his role would look like in Cubit’s new system, but he enjoys the spots he’s been put in by the third offensive coordinator he’s had in three seasons at Illinois.
“I wasn’t really sure because I wasn’t there in the spring and a little bit of the summer,” Davis said. “I’m glad to see my role is getting increased a little bit more each week, so I’m definitely happy with that.”
Golesh would like to see an increased vocal role from Davis, who is arguably one of the quietest players on the team.
“I actually challenged him (last) Sunday night and said, ‘Jon, you’ve got the respect of the coaches, the trainers and this team. You’re a junior. It’s time you start saying something,’ ” Golesh said. “He doesn’t say much, and I’m not OK with that. I want him to talk more. He doesn’t ever talk just to talk. That’s kind of how he’s been his whole life, but when he speaks up in our offensive room, everybody turns around and listens.”
Jon Davis was one of 27 recruits Ron Zook signed in his final recruiting class in 2011. At the time, the Louisville, Ky., native was considered a steal after flipping on his commitment to Kentucky. Here’s an update on how the rest of Zook’s final recruiting class has shaped up:
Name Pos. Status
Chris Boles OL Toledo, Ohio, native has yet to play in a game at Illinois
Ralph Cooper LB Backup to Jonathan Brown going into Saturday’s game at Penn State
Jon Davis TE On pace this season to surpass noteworthy receiving totals he posted in 2011
Henry Dickinson LB Leg injuries have derailed his career the last two years after promising 2011 season
Tony Durkin OL Tinley Park native has not played a game yet at Illinois and is out this season with a shoulder injury
Justin DuVernois P Florida native is sixth in the Big Ten in punting average at 40.8 yards entering Saturday’s game
Josh Ferguson RB Joliet Catholic product firmly entrenched as team’s starting running back
Pat Flavin OL Backup to Simon Cvijanovic at left tackle has played in one game this season
Zeph Grimes LB Was a captain last Saturday against Michigan State and is Mike Svetina’s backup at STAR on Saturday
Ted Karras OL A fixture on the offensive line, Indianapolis native will start 19th career game Saturday at right guard
Kenny Knight TE Switched from wideout during fall camp and has yet to see the field this season
Matt LaCosse TE Former QB at Naperville North has made strides this fall in becoming a nice complement to Davis
Scott McDowell OL Injuries limited him in the fall, and he has played in one game this season
Kenny Nelson DE In line to start once Tim Kynard graduates, he has team-high two fumble recoveries this year
Nick North DB Has yet to play in a game this season and has appeared in only one during career so far
Chris O’Connor OL Backup to Karras at right guard has played in one game this season
Reilly O’Toole QB 2010 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year has 141 passing yards in backup duty this year
Eaton Spence CB Starting cornerback is fourth on the team in tackles with 38, but he does not have an interception
Jeremy Whitlow RB Cleveland native was a special teams contributor in 2012 and has played in three games this year
Donovonn Young RB Has seen his role reduced the last two games and did not get a carry against Michigan State
Name Pos. Status
Willie Beavers DT Now a left tackle at Western Michigan after asking for release from Illinois prior to 2011 season
Darrius Caldwell DE Kicked off team this spring, has 12 tackles for Pearl River CC out of Poplarville, Miss., this season
Valdon Cooper CB Transferred to Georgia Southern after playing in 10 games during 2011 season
Jordan Frysinger WR Redshirted in 2011 before running afoul with the law. Left Illinois program in June 2012
Chris Jones DT Promising talent from Florida never played at Illinois after getting arrested on battery charges in 2011
Dondi Kirby DB A four-star recruit from Pennsylvania who picked Illinois ahead of Florida and USC never suited up for the Illini (academically ineligible). He’s now at Temple, where he has two tackles this season.
Clint Tucker DT Expected to compete for playing time in 2011, East St. Louis product never qualified and went to Eastern Arizona College, but he is no longer on that team’s roster