CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — A year ago, Mason Monheim was a freshman forced into action at linebacker at Illinois, one of the few good story lines in a season gone wrong.
With Jonathan Brown, the team’s top linebacker, hobbled by injury, Monheim turned into the leading tackler on a defense that struggled week after week. Monheim admits he was mostly clueless when he took the field, playing on instinct and ability.
“Last year about this time, my head was spinning,” he said. “I did not know a thing about what I was doing. ... My knowledge of the game has
increased so much.”
This season, Brown’s back and healthy. Combined with the more experienced Monheim, the two make up the clear strength on a defense that a young, thin team will count on if it’s going to improve on last season’s 2-10 record.
“Without a doubt,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said when asked if the linebackers are the clear strength of the defense.
Illinois really only plays two true linebackers, along with a pair of linebacker-safety hybrids the team calls the Star and the Leo. That makes
Brown and Monheim the heart of — not to mention the leaders of — what will be a very young defense.
“He’s doing a good job being vocal,” Banks said of Monheim. “We haven’t had many mistakes. I credit that to him, as well as (Brown), just being
quarterbacks out there.”
Last season, even with Brown limited, Illinois’ defense had undeniable talent. Seven of them have been part of NFL preseason rosters, and three — tackle Akeem Spence, defense back Terry Hawthorne and defensive end Michael Buchanan — were drafted.
But the defense, in its first season under Banks and head coach Tim Beckman, was among the Big Ten’s worst.
The Illini gave up 32.1 points a game, 11th in the 12-team conference. They were 10th in yards surrendered at 387.6 and created only 18