Two Illini sign free agent deals

Steve Weatherford punts against Purdue on Sept. 25, 2004. Illinois lost, 38-30. Daily Illini File Photo

Steve Weatherford punts against Purdue on Sept. 25, 2004. Illinois lost, 38-30. Daily Illini File Photo

By Courtney Linehan

Former Illinois football players Jason Davis and Steve Weatherford signed free agent contracts with NFL teams Sunday.

Davis, a fullback from St. Louis, signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Weatherford, a punter, is headed to New Orleans, where he’ll play for the Saints.

“I was more relieved than excited,” Davis said of getting the call that the Eagles wanted to sign him. “It was nice just knowing that it was over with, knowing where I was going.”

Davis is a two-year starter who scored six touchdowns, rushed for 361 yards and recorded 644 receiving yards in his four years at Illinois.

Weatherford spent four seasons as Illinois’ starting punter. In 2004, he was first-team All-Big Ten, and in 2005, he earned second-team All-Big Ten recognition. He holds the Illinois school record for career and single-season punting averages.

Weatherford is a former Louisiana native, having lived in Baton Rouge for 12 years.

“It’s like going home for me,” he said.

Weatherford will have a familiar face in the Big Easy, as former Illinois tight ends and special teams coach Greg McMahon is the Saints’ assistant special teams coach. The punter said McMahon was an important factor – but not the only one – in picking the Saints over six other teams that showed interest in signing him.

“I know I’ve got the best shot to play next year because he’s there,” Weatherford said. “I know he’s going to give me a fair shot; he’s not going to screw me around.”

Davis said he’s looking forward to playing in Philadelphia, in part because he also knows people in his destination city. Former Illini wide receiver Greg Lewis plays for the Eagles, and Davis’ best friend from home lives nearby.

“Philly’s a good fit,” Davis said. “Coach Zook was telling me that Philly fell in love with me, that there was a possibility I’d be going to Philly.”

Both Davis and Weatherford will be leaving in a few weeks to participate in preseason workouts with their new teams.

While seven Illini were hoping to be picked in this year’s NFL draft, none were drafted and Davis and Weatherford are the only two to sign free agent contracts so far. Davis said the draft-day drought served as a loud reminder of how important a winning program can be for a players’ future.

“You’ve got to win ball games. It’s not a coincidence that we were the only team in the Big Ten that didn’t have anybody drafted.” Davis said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t have draft-worthy players, but they’re going to pick a backup from USC or Oklahoma or Michigan before they take a starter from a team that only won two or three games.”