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Zook takes tough-love approach with Davis

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis remembers the times his big brother Vernon would come home from brutal practices at the University of Maryland, beaten down by drills and a particular coach.

"His coach would always push him," Vontae Davis said. "He would tell me so many stories. He'd be like, 'Imagine you were so tired, and you had to do the same play over and over again. You're exhausted.' It was his tight ends coach. He had a long, funny name."

Ray Rychleski was the man riding Vernon Davis at every turn. His approach worked, as Davis earned first-team All-America honors and went No. 6 overall in the 2006 NFL draft.

Vontae has no trouble remembering the name of the coach taking on a similar role with him at Illinois. It's only four letters and impossible to mispronounce.

And if things go according to plan, Davis will be thanking the man come draft day.

"It's my head coach," Vontae Davis said. "You have to impress your head coach if your head coach is on you that hard."

Ron Zook has made Vontae Davis his personal project. Zook, who coached defensive backs for much of his career, always keeps Davis in his sight during practice. No mistakes go unnoticed.

Davis has even been demoted to the second-team defense at times, spending much of spring practice with the backups.

"He's got eyes in the back of his head," Davis said. "He can almost feel when I'm not going how I should go. He knows me better than I know myself.

"I didn't know he was going to have that much input. I thought he's the head coach, he's going to watch over the team, but he's got his eyes on the defensive backs a lot."

Looking at Davis' credentials, it's easy to think Zook is wasting his time.

Davis earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last season after ranking sixth in the league in both interceptions (4) and pass breakups (8). The 6-foot, 204-pound junior enters the fall as a Playboy All-America selection, a leading candidate for the Thorpe Award and a potential top 5 NFL draft choice if he chooses to leave school a year early.

He has excellent speed, tackles well in the open field and measures in at three percent body fat. Not much to harp on, right?

"Coach Zook has always taken the best players and been most demanding on them," co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. "He wants them to be perfect. Our best players have got to be our best examples, and coach demands that of Vontae. He's always going to be held to the fire."

Davis has the tendency to reply on his natural gifts rather than preparation. That's where Zook comes in.

"He can't relax back there," Zook said. "He doesn't realize sometimes how good he can be. But he'll be OK. I love the kid. I love him like a son. But he also knows I'll put him over there beside me."

Zook told Davis to expect this type of treatment from the start, but as Davis improved and took on a greater role, the critiques have become harsher.

Having the head coach's constant attention does have its benefits, though. When Zook tells Davis before a play to jam a wide receiver at the line, the cornerback obliges.

And when Davis takes the field this fall, he'll have some added motivation to perform.

"I'm hard on myself," Davis said. "When I'm not playing the way I'm capable of, I feel like I let him down."