Current Illini help land top-notch recruits

Vontae Davis, left, arrived at Illinois a year before best friend Arrelious Benn, right. Benn says having Davis on campus has made his transition to Champaign a smooth one. ME Online

Brad Vest

Vontae Davis, left, arrived at Illinois a year before best friend Arrelious Benn, right. Benn says having Davis on campus has made his transition to Champaign a smooth one. ME Online

By ME Online

Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn grew up in the same Washington, D.C. neighborhood. They first played football together in a league run by the Boys and Girls Club, back when, Davis says “we had no idea what we were doing.”

So as Benn decided where to continue his football career, it mattered that Davis was already comfortably settled in at Illinois.

“He’s a guy I could relate to; I’ve known him since we were babies,” Benn said. “It’s not the biggest reason I came here, but I knew I had somebody to relate to.”

As reporters and coaches around the country questioned Illinois’ recruiting tactics, many overlook what coach Ron Zook considers the school’s main selling point: the people. Eleven of Illinois’ 21 signees had friends and former teammates already wearing orange and blue.

“Your players are your best ambassadors,” Zook said. “If they weren’t happy, if they didn’t think this program was going in the right direction, the student athletes who came in on their visits would feel it.”

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On Wednesday’s National Letter of Intent Signing Day, safety Nate Bussey added his name to the list of Dunbar athletes now playing football at Illinois. Bussey also joins D.C. product Eddie McGee, who played against the trio in high school.

“You want to have somebody who you know understands what you’re going through, knows what you feel like, came from the same background,” Benn said. “That’s what I like, and talking to a lot of guys, they like that too. It’s like a home away from home.”

The capitol city pipeline is not the only place Illinois has implemented the buddy system. Offensive tackle Craig Wilson joins three Morgan Park grads in Champaign: Kam Buckner, Chris James and Sam Porter all played for the Mustangs. Massilon, Ohio, known as a hotbed of high school football, produced 2006 signee Antonio James and 2007 safety Brian Gamble. Future Illini defensive tackle Josh Brent and current tight end Michael Hoomanawanui are so close they call each other brothers.

“You sort of get a behind-the-scenes look, you know what’s going on,” Brent says of Hoomanawanui coming to Illinois first. “Mike, through doubles and everything, would let me know what he was going through. It’s an advantage because coming in you know what you need to do, you know what the coaches are going to throw at you.”

Brent says he also got a head start on the recruiting process by going on campus visits with Hoomanawanui. He saw a pile of mail from different programs grow at his friend’s house, watched as he fielded phone calls from coaches across the country. Ultimately, Brent says, being at Hoomanawanui’s side helped get his own name out there for recruiters.

“As some of the schools started recruiting him later in the season, they saw me, so they knew the following year that I was there,” Brent says. “Because of him my name was out there a little more.”

But Brent and Benn both insist existing ties to a team aren’t enough to make you choose one school instead of another. Brent, the reigning Illinois shot put state champion, strongly considered Wisconsin for its competitive track and field team. He was heavily recruited by Ohio State, and admits there was an undeniable appeal to playing for the No. 1 team in the country. He says he knew he was a premiere recruit when a letter came from USC.

But when it came down to it, Illinois had the right edge. Zook says that’s no coincidence.

“It’s not something you can manufacture,” Zook says. “We don’t tell players hey, you say this or you do that. It’s natural. You can’t orchestrate that.”

Once he arrived on campus to start classes and practice a semester early, Benn says his existing social connections became even more important. He rooms with former high school rival McGee. Davis helped him find his classes the first day of the semester. And everyone had warned him about intense conditioning sessions.

“Most people don’t get to go to college with their friends. Experiencing that together makes you even closer in the long run,” Davis says.