Tate: Brown's one of a kind
Some truly historic Illini football performances have tended to sneak up on us ... somewhat unappreciated amid the mediocrity of 50-50 seasons.
Like, no one was prepared for Centennial's Mikel Leshoure, who shared time with Jason Ford and Daniel Dufrene in 2009, to run for a record-shattering 330 yards in Wrigley Field, set the school mark with 1,697 yards and match Rashard Mendenhall's 17 TDs in 2010.
And Whitney Mercilus came out of nowhere in 2011 to become the UI's second consensus All-American in 15 years when he tied Simeon Rice's school mark for sacks (16) and won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's premier defensive end.
Leshoure and Mercilus capitalized on their sudden fame by turning pro after their junior seasons. Speculation is rampant that this may happen again in 2012. You are hereby alerted, well in advance, to the extraordinary talent of a 230-pound package of dynamite, Jonathan Brown, latest in a long line of superb Illini linebackers. Watch No. 45 Saturday and you'll usually wind up around the football.
"Right now," coach Tim Beckman said, "he is playing as good as any linebacker I've been around."
That's a big statement for a coach who spent two years each at Ohio State and Oklahoma State before his last three seasons at Toledo.
"If we had to give an MVP after these practices, the defensive award would go to Jonathan and (tackle) Akeem Spence," he said. "Offensively, it would probably be Nathan Scheelhaase, and I'm very impressed with Graham Pocic for his work in playing center, guard and tackle."
The only blot on Brown's 2011 resume was his one-game suspension for an extracurricular swing against Northwestern.
"This past spring, he sometimes didn't control his temper," Beckman said. "Now he is controlling those things. He is practicing and studying and making his game better."
Brown is aware, saying: "I've really worked hard in keeping a level head in (stress) situations. That's the main difference between me now and a year ago: maturity."
The Illini are benefiting from a relationship that goes back to the early '90s when Vic Koenning, who left Illinois this year for North Carolina, was on the Memphis staff and Brown's father, Rod Brown, was a linebacker there. Koenning used that connection to attract Jonathan, and the youngster played in 12 Illini games as a freshman after sitting out the opener.
His statistics as a first-year starter in 2011 were extraordinary: 108 tackles of which 19.5 were behind the line, the latter ranking him sixth in the country. Displaying an aggressive, instinctive style, he posted double-figure tackles in six games, with a high of 17 against Ohio State. He earned the media vote as second-team All-Big Ten. He is on the watch list for the Nagurski, Bednarik, Lombardi, Lott and Butkus awards.
That's Dick Butkus, of course, the leader in a long line of quality UI linebackers that include Butkus Trophy winners Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy, and consensus All-American J Leman. Brown is a Hardy type, with a knack for blitzing and knifing along the line of scrimmage.
"It is a great honor to be thought of that highly, to be recognized with the best in the country," Brown said. "But at the end of the day, you have to go out and make plays. You have to win games."
Brown explains the changes installed by new linebackers coach Mike Ward are minimal.
"We have a few more drops into passing lanes, and this defense is a little less aggressive," he said. "With Coach Vic, we were always pressuring, and that helped us make some plays behind the line. We're more alert to the pass right now."
Small wonder. Beckman expects 60 or more passes Saturday by Western Michigan, which threw for 4,385 yards last season and rushed for 1,575. Consider that the UI school record for passing yards is 3,677, when Tony Eason was QB in 1982. Western Michigan is overwhelmingly an air-minded team. The quarterback, Alex Carder, returns after firing 31 TD passes including seven strikes in a 66-63 loss to Beckman's Toledo team.
"We want to get pressure on the quarterback," Brown said. "That's the emphasis. I'll be blitzing a good amount."
Alongside Brown will be Houston Bates, a third-year squadman who scored a perfect 4.0 in recent summer classes. Hailing from Louisiana, he originally committed to LSU but reopened his recruiting when LSU overbooked. He declined when he was asked to wait until January for his scholarship.
"Being a defensive end in high school, I'm learning a lot about pass drops," Bates said. "I'm the young guy, and it's great being next to Jonathan. He's got the whole package, and he stands apart from everyone else on the team."
With Henry Dickinson sidelined (broken leg), Ward will alternate sophomore backup Ralph Cooper at both positions. South Carolinian Zeph Grimes, a redshirt freshman, is next in line, and Ohioan Mason Monheim appears to be the best freshman. Monheim arrived with roughly 20 hours of college credits gained as an A student at Orrville High (Ohio).
"All our linebackers, including the freshmen, will make an impact one way or another," Ward said. "We're rolling them all through the positions in case they're needed. But Brown and Bates are our starters. We can bring in Cooper at either spot. We are keeping Grimes and the freshmen at one spot each.
"Brown is flying around. He is in the best shape in his life and very focused. He'd rather blitz than anything."
Ward knows what Beckman wants. They spent eight years together at Bowling Green and, after a separation of four years, were together again the last three years at Toledo.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.