For a while he was known as that guy who kneed the Northwestern player in the groin after the whistle. Then Jonathan Brown took his suspension and came back with 17 tackles against Ohio State en route to being named second-team All-Big Ten. Despite a disappointing season in terms of wins and losses, the Memphis native has continued to produce, and he enters today’s game at Michigan coming off a season-high nine-tackle performance at Wisconsin playing on an injured ankle.
Who do you turn to when times are tough, kind of like this season has been for the team? I’m lucky enough to have great support behind me. I talk to my mom, my stepmom, my dad and my stepdad. I’ve got a lot of people I can talk to when I’m feeling down. My mom comes up for every game. They say it takes a village to raise a child and it really took a village to raise me. Any time I’m able to do what I love and have them watch, it’s a great feeling.
How good can these freshman linebackers (Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina) be? They can be really good with time. We’ve asked them to do some big things this year and they’re doing a pretty good job of doing what we’ve asked them to do.
At what point did you know that Mason could contribute like the coaching staff has asked him? Mason kind of showed me what he can do during camp. He made a couple plays and he always had this swag about him. From Day 1, I knew there was something different about him.
Do those guys come to you for advice? Yeah. We’re like a band of brothers and any time they need something, they can come to me. If I have a question about something, I can ask them. We’re all always right there.
Who’s your favorite linebacker of all time? I’ve got to go with Ray Lewis and not just because of what he does on the field, but his whole aura about him, the way he carries himself. He’s different.
Who’s your favorite Illinois linebacker? I’ve got to roll with Dana Howard. I’ve met him a few times, got to know him a little bit.
I talked to J Leman a few weeks ago and he was mentioning all the great Illinois linebackers — Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Howard, Kevin Hardy, John Holocek — and he said you can be right there when your career is over. How does that make you feel? It’s time for me to put in some work. It’s an honor to be mentioned with those guys. At the same time, you’ve got to take your game to another level when people start talking about you as one of the greatest to be at a school. It is a great honor.
There’s still a ways to go, but did you think you’d have this much success at this point in your career, being considered one of the best in the country? That was one of my goals coming into college. I said I wanted to be one of the best to do it. I saw I was going to be able to come here and be a player and not just another number on the roster.
When it comes to making the decision on whether to enter the draft, who will you talk to for advice? I’ll probably talk to God more than anything for that one because that’s a life-changing decision. A decision like that, it’s too big, you’ve got to put it in his hands and make the decision for you.
What’s going on with the glasses you and Akeem Spence wear in the postgame? It was something I started. Spence kind of just ran with it. It’s something I like doing, just something different.
Are you going to start getting creative with them, like the NBA guys? No, I’m not going to put that much thought into it. It’s just a nice little change-up.
What did you learn from that incident with Northwestern last season? It was definitely something I needed to learn from. It let me know the cameras are always on me. It let me know I’m in a bigger light than I thought. Someone is always watching and that’s not how you’re supposed to carry yourself. I learned a lot of lessons from that.
How sore is a linebacker after a game? If you’re not sore, I don’t know what you’re doing. It’s definitely a physical position. If you treat your body good, you should be all right.
Why did you choose Illinois? I liked the people around here. There are just good people around Champaign. The facilities were great and I felt like I could make an impact and being a player.
Did you see your former teammate Martez Wilson make that game-ending play the other night for the Saints? Yeah, I was proud of him. He’s like my big brother. I texted him after the game to let him know how proud I was and how big that was. That was a clutch play to give them their first win. It feels good to see, not only a personal friend, but somebody who went through the same thing you went through to be in that position. Corey Liuget had a good game, too, so did Pierre Thomas. There were a lot of Illini on that field.
What’s been your best hit?
I don’t know, I think every hit is my best hit. I try to make every hit my best.
Who’s the hardest-hitting running back you’ve faced?
I’d have to say a guy who’s not even in the Big Ten anymore, Silas Redd from Penn State, now at USC. He was one of the toughest runners. Montee Ball is good, but Silas brings it.