Jonathan Brown was one of the best defenders on the Illinois football team last fall as a sophomore. He led the Illini in tackles with 108, including 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He also grabbed an interception, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble. He's hungry for more this fall.
"I set personal goals for myself pretty high this year. I'm working to meet that. But really, I'm just working hard in practice every day and getting better in that way. I think that will help me meet my personal goals."
While he won't admit this publicly, the transformation of former Illini Whitney Mercilus from part-time starter to 1st round NFL draft selection has had a big impact on his future goals. No doubt he hopes to be the next Illini junior to see his name called in the NFL draft.
"Whitney had a great season. You couldn't ask for anything better. He's a hard worker, and he made that happen. One of the things I'm trying to pick up from him is working hard through practice. He had a different type of work ethic; he's one of the hardest working guys I know. If I could do what he did, I'd be pretty successful in life."
The change to a new coaching staff led by Tim Beckman hasn't appeared to slow Brown's development. If anything, it may be enhanced.
"Things are going real good, real smooth. I'm getting used to the changes, but it's been a smooth process.
"Right now, I'm exclusively at MIKE. I thought I'd play some WILL, but if they keep me at MIKE, I'm fine with that. It's not really an adjustment for me, I played both of them last year. This year, it's really just getting used to it. It's helping me out to focus on one thing."
Other than language differences, the new Illini defense is similar to what they've run the last couple years.
"There's different terminology, but the schemes are very similar. I haven't had a problem getting used to that at all. We're really learning a lot of the same things, just different terminology."
Brown likes new linebacker coach Mike Ward.
"Coach Ward is a good guy, a real good guy. We're learning new things, more on pass coverage. Taking different drops. Coach Vic (Koenning) taught me a lot, but I'm picking up little things from Coach Ward each day."
There was heavy defensive emphasis on creating turnovers during spring practices.
"I think we're learning to get the ball out more. That's something we're developing. We had great habits at the end of last year, so we're really just continuing on and working on the little things."
There was no sophomore jinx for Brown. Two seasons of solid play and continued improvement have boosted the Memphis star's confidence level.
"Each time you step on the field, you gain confidence. It's just a matter of playing smart and making the right decisions. Being a leader out there. That's one of the biggest things I'm focusing on right now.
"It's definitely a different role. But I'm definitely more comfortable being more vocal. It's coming along pretty good."
Like his teammates, Brown was grateful to have a big win in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It countered some bad memories to end the 2011 season.
"It definitely felt good. Ending the season on a different note was important. We had lost six straight, so ending with a win was definitely a launching pad for this year."