A Tougher Road

Linebacker Jonathan Brown's strange route to recognition by the Butkus Award.

CHAMPAIGN – Despite two distinct disadvantages, Jonathan Brown was named as a finalist for the Butkus Award earlier this week.

The defense's struggles to adapt to a new staff and a lingering ankle injury didn't keep Brown from being named one of the 12 players remaining in the mix for the award.

That has coach Tim Beckman using lofty words to describe the junior's play this season.

"Courageous, I guess, would be the biggest word because he hasn't been 100 percent. You can see that on film," Beckman said.

The award, given annually to the nation's top linebacker, is clearly near and dear to the Illinois program – duh, it's named for Dick Butkus.

But there's more, an added history – Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy won the award in back-to-back years, 1994 and '95.

So seeing Brown's name mentioned means something, even though his season, like the rest of the team's, could easily be categorized as difficult.

First and foremost, the defense has struggled to adjust to the next coaching staff and defensive coordinator Tim Banks. The reasons for poor defensive play could be argued all day, but the bottom line is the results have been disappointing at best.

Brown, however, has been a positive force despite the rocky transition, making 44 tackles, 4.5 for loss. Brown says the biggest challenge has been, "just knowing exactly where the coaches wanted me to be, exactly where I needed to be, and being comfortable with it. I had two years to get used to (the former defensive scheme), so my second year it was just second nature just to go out there and just react. That's the biggest difference I think. I'm not reacting. I'm thinking."

Compounding the issue, Brown says, was a serious lack of communication. Chalk it up to growing pains or players not playing on the same page, but according to Brown the issue was too much to overcome.

"From being on the field with another person, relaying the play to them, telling them the play, guys being where we're supposed to be and just player-coaches telling us how they feel," Brown says of where the breakdowns occurred.

The staff continued to work on that problem during the bye last week. Brown, meanwhile, used the down time to rest his ankle, which has kept him out of the starting lineup the past two games.

In an interesting personnel quirk, Brown didn't play the first defensive series against Wisconsin and Michigan, but immediately entered the game on the second drive.

That may have been a move to reward Mike Svetina, who most likely logged more practice reps than Brown due to the injury. The fact that Brown has missed so much practice time and still played at such a high level is worth noting, according to ‘Star' Ashante Williams.

"It's still not the same type of feel until he really gets out there and takes a hit," Williams said. "You can't really emulate the game and all that pounding and how your body is going to withstand that toll in the game."

Brown's still not 100 percent. He admitted that earlier this week. But during the team's first practice following the bye, Beckman could tell a difference in his star.

"Jonathan Brown has been playing through a lot of pain these last couple of weeks," he said. "(Sunday) he was the old Jonathan Brown. That was good to see."

With Brown near full strength, his attention has turned to improving the defense as a whole. So far, he likes the strides the unit has made since giving up 527 yards to Michigan two weeks ago.

"Everybody's on the same page I feel this week," he said. "Coaches, players, the training staff, everybody's on the same page and we're moving forward.

"I think guys are starting to realize we don't have any time left. It's a must we buy in because I was looking at it the other day, we still have a shot at going to the Big Ten championship. It might be a small one, but it's a shot and I think guys are just starting to play for something and buy in."

Most likely a fallback cliche, it's still strange to hear the team is just now starting to play for something, especially coming from a player just recently nationally recognized.

The Big Ten title might be a stretch, but with foes like Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern still on the schedule, Brown isn't concerned about winning the Butkus. He wants bowl eligibility.

"It's definitely an opportunity to go out and get some wins. We want to win these remaining games," he said.

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