Jonathan Brown is tackling players at a rapid rate. If he keeps up his pace — and stays healthy — he could make a case for finding his name among the top 10 tacklers in Illinois program history. The senior linebacker, who has 236 tackles so far in his career, has a ways to go before he approaches that milestone. He gets another chance today against Miami (Ohio). But before the Big Ten’s leading tackler goes out and asserts himself against the RedHawks, he dished on how he’s grown since he arrived at Illinois, what made him not declare for the NFL draft last offseason and his affinity for the Illinois campus.
How frustrating was last year?
It was really frustrating. Just winning two games was probably the most frustrating part. I felt like, as a team, we had so much more talent. We just didn’t reach our full potential.
How is the shoulder?
How did the injury happen during the Ohio State game last year?
It was just one of those freak plays. I hit the ground awkwardly. My arm got caught, and it separated my (pectoral) from my shoulder. I’d never had a season-ending injury before.
How did you mentally prepare for this season?
Just knowing that this is my last season to get the opportunity to play here and knowing that we had a lot of work to do coming into the season. We had a lot of young guys, me and Tim (Kynard), that we could sculpt and help build, and actually build a dynasty here. That’s something we’ve been working on.
How do you feel you’ve matured since you’ve been here?
Man, it’s unbelievable. I got here, and I was a 17-year-old, snotty-nosed kid. Now I feel like I’m growing up.
When do you think you had that moment where you realized you needed to mature?
To be honest, growing up is always a thought each year, but I’d say at the end of last season that it hit me. I’d had my fun and my time to mess around. Now it’s time to really grow up.
Did you think about leaving for the NFL last year?
Of course. Who wouldn’t think about it if they had the opportunity to play in the NFL?
What held you back?
The injury was the biggest thing, and the fact that I could graduate in three-and-a-half years and just getting another opportunity to play. After last season, like I said, we didn’t reach that potential, and I felt that we had so much more to do.
How rewarding is it for you to be having the season you’re having and for the team to be playing better?
It’s more of a unity feeling. We don’t care who gets the credit. Of course, I’m getting big tackles in the stat sheet, but that’s just a testament to what we all do. The defensive line keeps everybody off, the safeties keep us covered in the back, and the other linebackers in the room come to work each day. It’s really a testament to how hard we’ve been working, but at the same time, it’s something I don’t want to get caught up in. We haven’t even hit the Big Ten yet. It’s a long season, so we’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us.
How do you get past the 14-game Big Ten losing streak?
We don’t even think about it. The 14-game losing streak is something that we’re reminded of when we talk to the media, man, but in that locker room, that’s not even something we think about. We think about going out and working hard each day for the next opponent.
You graduate in December. If an NFL career doesn’t pan out, what do you want to do?
I wouldn’t mind going in the media. I think it’s fun hearing different perspectives from athletes. I wouldn’t mind writing, but I prefer broadcast. The thing about writing is you can express yourself in ways you couldn’t on broadcast. That’s probably the thing I like most about writing.
What will it mean for you to get your degree in December?
It’s huge, especially from a university like the University of Illinois where it’s a big tradition. A lot of people respect it. Being a kid from Memphis, who never thought of coming to the University of Illinois, it’s very rewarding. I got an opportunity here to show a lot of kids back home that there’s a lot more to the world than just Memphis.
How often do you get back to Memphis?
I try to get home for every holiday. After the spring and going into the season is real tough, but I really try to get home for Christmas.
What do you miss the most about Memphis?
Just being around my family is probably the biggest thing.
What do you enjoy most about the Illinois campus?
It’s gorgeous here, man. Just take a look. To be honest, after being here a while you just walk around and start to appreciate the little things like how the buildings look or at night when the sun sets. It’s gorgeous. I really have grown to love Champaign.
When you’re on the field during a game, do you keep a mental list of how many tackles you’ve made?
Not at all. I did it when I was little, and I learned that’s the quickest way to get run over or to lose a game. I learned at an early age you really can’t do that. You’ve got to think about the next play.
Do you think the defense still has a lot to prove this year?
I don’t think we have a lot to prove. I feel like we’ve got a lot more strides to make, though, to get to where we know we need to be. To reach our full potential, we still have to work each day. We’re an all right defense right now. We’re not great. We’re not good, but we’ve got the possibility to be good.
What would it mean to you if you leave here as one of the best linebackers to ever play at Illinois and are mentioned, 10, 15 years down the road with names like Leman, Butkus, Howard and others?
Just to be mentioned in the same sentence as some of those guys would be an honor, but I know if I take care of the main goal here, which is winning football games, everything else will take care of itself.
Any NFL linebackers you like watching?
Ray Lewis, of course. He was one of the greatest. I’m a fan of football, so any time a game is on, I just watch. I sit there like a little kid. I know when I was little I would just sit there all Sunday and watch football. And any time I watch a game, I watch the linebackers and see how they’re moving. I feel you can pick up something from anybody, so it’s good just to watch everybody.
Who’s your dream date?
Either Mila Kunis, Sanaa Lathan or Lauren London. If one of them don’t work out, we can go to the next one. That’s why I said all three.
A night on the town with one of those three or 15 tackles and a win against Miami (Ohio)?
That’s easy. Fifteen tackles and a win.