Bob Asmussen | Vontae Davis was one of a kind

Apr. 2—CHAMPAIGN — It seems like the Q&A with Vontae Davis happened five years ago. Actually, it has been almost 17.

I remember it vividly. Why? Because of Davis's voice (high pitched) and his smile, which he seemed to wear all the time.

And because of the answer to a very specific question from our session back in 2007: Tell me something people don't know about one of your teammates.

Earlier that year, I posed the same question to Davis's best bud and teammate, receiver Arrelious Benn.

He said high-school teammate Davis "sucked his thumb."

When it was Davis's turn, he came up with a doozy: "Rejus (Benn's nickname) sleeps completely naked. If it's winter and there's a fire, he doesn't have much time to get his clothes on."

Davis roared while giving me the quote during the memorable season that eventually turned into a Rose Bowl berth for Illinois. I did too. One of my all-time favorite moments with any Illinois player.

The few times I saw him after he left Illinois and became a first-round NFL draft pick in 2009, I'd remind him of the quote, and he would laugh about it again.

Sadly, there is no laughter today. Only pain. Davis passed away Monday at the way-too-young age of 35.

The reports came late morning and early afternoon, and I hoped it was a mistake.

My thoughts go first to his immediate family, including brother Vernon, a longtime NFL standout tight end. Every time I talked to Vontae during his time in Champaign-Urbana, the conversation would always turn toward Vernon, who Vontae admired so much.

And the news has to be devastating for his Illinois coaches, Ron Zook, Mike Locksley, Reggie Mitchell, etc., and his former teammates. The news will hit Benn especially hard. For all their teasing, they were as close as brothers.

On the field, Vontae was an ace. He was Devon Witherspoon before Witherspoon, a cover corner who ranks as one of the best in school history. He was a three-year starter and three-time All-Big Ten honoree who then played 10 seasons in the NFL.

Because of his ability to lock down the opponents' top receivers, he allowed the Illinois defense to play more aggressively.

Vontae played three games against Bret Bielema-coached Wisconsin teams. The Illini won 31-26 in 2007, with Vontae intercepting a pass and recording six tackles.

In a 30-24 loss to Wisconsin in 2006, Vontae had eight tackles. He had three stops in a 27-17 loss in 2008 in Madison.

"I just saw an incredibly talented player, checked all the boxes," Bielema said Monday afternoon. "I knew he was going to be not just a college player but in the NFL. The passion, the intensity, the motor that he played with and then to hear people talk about him — I know he is a very loved player here at the University of Illinois."

Moving on

David Gibbs, hired after the 2023 season to work with the secondary and as associate head coach, is leaving the Illinois program for medical reasons.

"I want to wish him and his family all the best," Bielema said.

Bielema told the rest of the staff about the change Monday morning. The fourth-year Illini coach won't try to fill the position while spring drills continue through April 20.

"We're going to handle everything within our staff," Bielema said. "Just not time to do all that."

Defensive coordinator Aaron Henry will work with the defensive backs and get help from analyst Kevin Richardson. Graduate assistant Grant Morgan is another who can pitch in.

Bielema said his phone has been buzzing since the change was announced Monday morning. He will complete the staff in late April or May.

"I really don't have a set plan," Bielema said.

Bielema doesn't rule out the possibility of Gibbs returning to the staff later in an analyst position.

Bielema said he can't discuss details of Gibbs' situation that prompted his departure.

"I would say it's new," Bielema said, "but not all that new."

Early in Bielema's Illinois tenure, tight ends/special teams coach Ben Miller had to leave the program as he battled cancer. He is on the road to recovery and is back with the team as an analyst.

"My immediate concern was him," Bielema said.

When a replacement for Gibbs is hired, it will be the fifth coaching staff change since the end of the 2023 season.

Bielema fired Andy Buh and Antonio Fenelus, while George McDonald (Mississippi) and Charlie Bullen (New York Giants) left for other jobs.