Position Probe: Linebacker

An in-depth take, position by position, as the Illini transition from spring drills to summer workouts.

For a spot losing a force like Jonathan Brown, I'm pretty damn bullish.

Think about this… There's the known commodity in two-year starter Mason Monheim. He might not be perfect, but he's just now getting to the physical and mental points where most Big Ten players break into the starting lineup. And he's already been logging nearly every play a game for two seasons now. That's a good block to build around.

Then there's T.J. Neal. He came in with Monheim but was redshirted. He might not have been as ready to play immediately as Monheim was, but he just might end up being the better player when all is said and done. Neal looked poised to start this spring, ready to fill Brown's shoes. He's a solid 6-1, 235 pounds and appeared more confident in every aspect of the game. I remember an interview I did with Neal last August. Put simply, it wasn't a very good interview. He didn't know what to say and he was nervous. This spring though, he was much more polished in speaking to the media.

It might be a lame comparison, but I think sums up what Neal has done as a whole. He's ready. Period.

Now, I admit I may be prematurely pushing Mike Svetina to the side. He's a junior just like Monheim, who has mass amounts of experience at both inside linebacker and Star (essentially an outside linebacker spot). Clearly, he's better suited for the inside, and now he's back where he should be. He'll be in the mix with Neal for a starting spot and will play meaningful time regardless of who wins that battle.

You can throw Ralph Cooper in the Svetina pool, too. Cooper might not have the upside Neal does, but it's nice to have a senior in the two deep that can log some time when needed. There will probably come a time when that will prove handy.

And it might be worth mentioning, the young B.J. Bello is now at inside linebacker. I don't know what he can contribute in terms of actual minutes on the field, but he does have a different skill set than any of the others mentioned above. He fast and quick, so he's a name to keep in mind for down the road. He could develop into something. As for what, I just don't know.

The linebacker position no longer has the star power of Brown to carry the unit. But the work ethic and likability of each guy currently involved is not in question. If Neal pans out and Monheim keeps improving, that's enough reason to believe the unit will play well enough.

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