Fast Track

Mason Monheim isn't the same player he was during the first weeks of August camp, when he was the new kid around.

CHAMPAIGN – You wouldn't know it these days, but it wasn't that long ago when Mason Monheim felt unsure during practice.

Understandably, the first few weeks of August camp were difficult for the freshman linebacker from Orrville, Ohio.

"I was struggling, especially in the beginning," he said.

While learning the scheme and playbook, Monheim came to the realization that all newcomers to college football figure out at some point or another: his peers were bigger and faster and the speed of the game was entirely different from previous levels.

He wasn't quite sure of the plays to begin with and competing against players much bigger and experienced seemed intimidating at first.

But he quickly became more comfortable, thanks to upperclassmen like Jonathan Brown and the bond he established with fellow freshmen Mike Svetina and Joe Spencer, his roommate.

He also had the advantage of knowing a Big Ten linebacker already engrained in the ways of college football life.

Indiana's Chase Hoobler, a redshirt sophomore, attended the same Orrville High as Monheim and was happy to give his friend some advice.

"He said you just have to go with it, learn the system and have fun," Monheim said.

What at first seemed like a stacked position on the depth chart, injuries, suspensions and attrition took its toll at linebacker.

Monheim was Houston Bates' backup at the ‘Mike' for the season opener. Per Tim Beckman's policy on subbing players in and out, Monheim heard his name called against Western Michigan. He admits he was nervous.

"It's always like that first play, it's like a whirlwind," he said. "After that first play and that first hit, it just calmed down and I focused and just played football."

The result of that first game? One tackle and a forced fumble. Two weeks later, with Bates sidelined by injury, Monheim made his first start.

The result? An interception and five tackles. He's been in the starting lineup ever since, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week after recording 11 tackles versus Penn State.

The accolades are nice, he says, but he's not satisfied with personal recognition.

"It's always a good feeling but I talk to people and they're like, ‘hey, you're playing as a freshman, or, you're starting as a freshman,' " he said. "To them it's good, but I want to win. I want to win for the team, the seniors, so that's really what I'm focused on."

With Illinois stumbling to a 2-5 record thus far, Monheim is dealing with something never encountered in the past. His high schools teams didn't have a losing record. Orrville was a combined 34-15 in his four years at the school, and he finished as the all-time leader in tackles.

For a player accustomed to winning, to perform well and suffer losses is strange territory.

"We're all struggling," he said. "We're determined and we're gonna find a way to get it done."

Perhaps Monheim will look back on this first season and be proud of his quick ascension to a contributing role and his quick turnaround from those first few days of camp when he wasn't sure if he could hack it or not. But this is not the time for reflection. Currently, he's preparing for a meeting with Hoobler and Indiana Saturday, a chance to both play well and win.

"It's a challenge. We like that though. We like the challenge and we're going to fight," Monheim said.


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