CHAMPAIGN — In the 1990s, Illinois featured a linebacking corps known as the “H” Boys: Kevin Hardy, John Holocek and Dana Howard. The next dynamic group might go down as the Ohio Boys — or the M&M Boys.
Who knows what Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina will be known as. But if the true freshmen continue on their current trajectory — they’re a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season for the Illini (2-5, 0-3 Big Ten) — they might make a name for themselves.
“It’s been great to watch them. They’ve been thrown into the fire as true freshmen. I don’t know if there’s many in BCS football starting two true freshmen like we did against Michigan,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “They’re great kids, they’re getting better every day, they come from great programs and their games are just going to get better and better.”
Monheim, a native of Orrville, Ohio, has started the last five games at middle linebacker and is third on the team in tackles behind Ashante Williams and Butkus Award semifinalist Jonathan Brown.
“I didn’t really have any expectations, I just tried to do my best in everything and see what happens,” Monheim said. “I got an opportunity and I’m taking advantage of it. I’m going to cherish the moment.”
Monheim started for an injured Houston Bates against Charleston Southern and hasn’t been displaced. The one-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week leads all conference rookies with 42 tackles.
“I want to win for the team, for the seniors. That’s really what I’m focused on,” Monheim said. “I’ve never really been on a losing team. I’m struggling, we’re all struggling, but we’re determined. We’re going to find a way to get it fixed.”
Svetina, of Brusnwick, Ohio, has started each of the last two games at weak-side linebacker, but he’s played extensively throughout the season.
“It’s just been a learning experience, more than anything for us,” Svetina said. “We have great mentors, the older guys have been great mentors and they’ve kind of taken us under their wing and we’ve really just been learning from them and taking it one step at a time.”
Lewis to return
Corey Lewis hasn’t played since the season finale in 2009. The Academic All-Big Ten honoree tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during spring practice in 2010 and the injury has sidelined him since.
The fifth-year senior offensive lineman is expected to take the field Saturday.
“Corey Lewis was OK’d two weeks ago. He’s been practicing with us, it’s just amazing the progress he has made,” Beckman said. “I’m so happy for him because he’s busted his keister for a long, long time to get himself to where he is right now.”
Beckman said he’ll use Lewis at one of the tackle positions going forward. It’s also possible that Lewis and Illinois could petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility since he has missed the last two seasons because of injury.
“We’ve never seen him play, just been watching him practice,” Beckman said. “It’s one of those stories, to me, that’s a highlight of being a student-athlete in college football.”