Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown has compiled impressive statistics to date. He has 67 tackles in 8 games, leading middle linebacker Ian Thomas by 12 despite missing the Indiana game. He had 17 tackles in the loss to Ohio State.
He is presently second on the team in tackles for loss with 11.5, third in sacks with 4.5 and has both an interception and fumble recovery. He is humble about his success.
"Yeah, it's a blessing. It's something I knew I could do."
His play has continued to improve as the season has progressed. He was asked to explain his development.
"Understanding of the game, being able to be more comfortable out there. Just let things flow. Don't worry about things, just go out there and play."
Brown says the bye week has come at a good time.
"It was definitely a boost. We had a chance to take a couple days to yourself and really relax your body. Get back the focus."
The nine game stretch without a break is difficult physically and mentally in a conference as rugged as the Big 10. Brown feels the Illini defense held its own, but the rest helps.
"I think the trick is to keep the bounce in your step. I think that's what we've been able to do as a defense. Now, I think we're gonna be back fresh. My body felt a little bit better than it did last week or the week before. That just comes with the rest."
The Illini should feel a little quicker and fresher next Saturday against Michigan. The bye week helped heal the physical bruises, but Brown admits three straight losses still wears on the team mentally.
"It's tough dropping three, even with the time off. The break helped us relax and not get into it so quick. But you can't help but think about it."
Brown feels the Illini haven't lost confidence despite the down times.
"I think we're gonna face Michigan with confidence. That's the type of team we are. We know we're a good team."
He also feels a sense of payback after losing an overtime heartbreaker to the Wolverines last year.
"They put 67 points on us last year. They came out and embarrassed us. That definitely added something to this game. We're gonna go out and play."
While a Big 10 Championship may be out of the question at this point, Brown says the Illini still have much reason to play hard their last three regular season games.
"I definitely want to get back on a winning track. Don't let the losses get to you. Once we get back on that track, the sky is the limit."
Normally a WILL linebacker, Brown has shared time with Thomas at the MIKE as well. Defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Vic Koenning says Brown is improving, but playing two positions may not have been best for him.
"I think there's good and bad. He does some really good things. I probably need to rest him a little bit more. I know playing two positions is not the most positive thing for him. When he makes mistakes, it's probably when he gets diluted between the two. He can be a lot better.
"He's doing some good stuff. He shows, he makes some good plays. We're moving him around a little bit because he's been pretty dynamic. We're trying to get him to be the guy that makes plays."
While the complexity may limit Brown at times, there is no doubt the approach Koenning uses is a compliment to his young linebacker.
"The first coach I ever worked for, named Charlie Bailey, had a saying, 'You want your best players to be making the plays because they're the guys capable of doing it.'"
As one of the best defenders on the team, Brown is capable. He may be moved permanently to the middle next season; that remains to be determined. Regardless, he is improving rapidly and will be at the heart of Illini defensive play for the next couple years.