If Illinois wants to beat No. 6 Missouri in the season opener, the Illini will have to figure out a way to stop Jeremy Maclin. The task falls to Vontae Davis.
For a scouting report on Missouri sophomore receiver-returner Jeremy Maclin, let's go to Illinois junior cornerback Vontae Davis.
Davis first met Maclin in the season opener a year ago, when Maclin's career got off to a fast start with two touchdowns in the Tigers' 40-34 victory. By season's end, Maclin's 2,776 all-purpose yards set an NCAA record for a freshman and stood fifth all-time.
"He kind of reminds me of Ted Ginn from Ohio State,'' Davis said. "But I feel he can do much more things than Ginn, who just played receiver. Missouri moves him around a lot more. He's explosive. He can do a lot of stuff. We have to stop him all over. We have to stop him as a runner, receiver and punt returner.''
After getting reacquainted with Maclin during the Playboy All-American photo shoot in Phoenix this summer, Davis likes the idea of any head-to-head matchups with Maclin, a receiver who will likely shift into the backfield for a handful of running plays while also returning punts and kicks when No. 20 Illinois faces No. 6 Missouri Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN) at the Edwards Jones Dome in St. Louis.
"Whoever wins that battle gets the upper hand,'' Davis said.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Maclin, from Kirkwood, Mo., was the only player in the nation to record touchdowns last season via receiving (nine), rushing (four), punt returns (two) and kickoff returns (one). He reminds coaches of Illini star wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Coincidentally, they both wear No. 9. The 6-0, 204-pound Davis is the same kind of athlete, just on the other side of the ball.
Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel threw for school records 4,306 yards and 33 touchdowns last season -- including 37-for-54 for 359 yards and three touchdowns against Illinois -- and the Tigers return 10 starters this fall on defense, but Maclin vs. Davis matchup would be a game within the game.
"Maclin is just like Vontae Davis on offense,'' said Illinois middle linebacker Brit Miller. "He's one of the best pure athletes there is in college football. He'll make people miss and use his athleticism. They do a great job of getting him involved in every possible way.
"It's Vontae on Vontae or Maclin on Maclin. Vontae is up to the challenge. He's been waiting for this for a year.''
After sitting out the 2006 season because of a knee injury, Maclin scored touchdowns on a 25-yard pass and a 66-yard punt return against the Illini, back-to-back scores within 4 minutes that gave Missouri a 37-13 late in the third quarter. He finished with 1,055 yards receiving and 388 yards rushing last season. Like Daniel, Missouri promotes Maclin as a Heisman trophy candidate.
"Very rarely do you have a guy who any time he touches the ball can possibly change a game,'' Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "I've not had a guy quite like this before in 30 years of coaching. He had a phenomenal freshman year. Time will tell if he can take it to another level.''
After finishing with 227 all-purpose yards in his first meeting against Illinois and getting to know Davis during the Playboy shoot, Maclin wouldn't mind a face-to-face reunion in the opener.
"If I do, so be it,'' he said. "I'll prepare and compete regardless of who I face. He was one of the guys I spent a lot of time with down there (in Phoenix). We talked a lot about college football and the upcoming game. It wasn't really trash talking.''
Maclin was nearly Davis' teammate, but he chose the Tigers over Illinois, Ohio State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Colorado, Notre Dame and UCLA. Maclin made more than one unofficial visit to the Illinois campus.
Illinois "was definitely in my top five,'' Maclin said. "Coach (Ron) Zook is a great recruiter. They almost had me.''
Imagine Maclin and Benn in the same formation.
"I can't even picture that,'' Davis said.
Trying to cover just one of them is enough of a chore.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
A look at Missouri
Record: 12-2 overall, 7-1 in the Big 12 Conference in 2007.
Coach: Gary Pinkel: 49-36 in eighth year at Missouri, 122-73-1 in 17th year overall.
Players to watch: QB Chase Daniel, WR Jeremy Maclin, TE Chase Coffman, LB Sean Witherspoon, DE Stryker Sulak, FS Williams Moore.
Did you know?: In conference games only, Missouri led the Big 12 in total defense by allowing 353.9 yards per game, but linebacker Van Alexander is expected to miss the opener because of a knee injury.
Say what?: "It was my first time in New York. I'd love to get back with Jeremy Maclin. I think he has a big shot at getting there as well.'' -- Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel, on his trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony last December.