CHAMPAIGN – A year ago, Mason Monheim was a freshman forced into action at linebacker at Illinois, one of the few good story lines in a season gone wrong.
With Jonathan Brown, the team's top linebacker, hobbled by injury, Monheim turned into the leading tackler on a defense that struggled week after week.
Monheim admits he was mostly clueless when he took the field, playing on instinct and ability.
"Last year about this time, my head was spinning," he said. "I did not know a thing about what I was doing. ... My knowledge of the game has increased so much."
This season, Brown's back and healthy. Combined with the more experienced Monheim, the two make up the clear strength on a defense that a young, thin team will count on if it's going to improve on last season's 2-10 record.
"Without a doubt," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said when asked if the linebackers are the clear strength of the defense.
Illinois really only plays two true linebackers, along with a pair of linebacker-safety hybrids the team calls the Star and the Leo. That makes Brown and Monheim the heart of – not to mention the leaders of – what will be a very young defense.
"He's doing a good job being vocal," Banks said of Monheim. "We haven't had many mistakes. I credit that to him, as well as [Brown], just being quarterbacks out there."
Last season, even with Brown limited, Illinois' defense had undeniable talent. Seven of them have been part of NFL preseason rosters, and three – tackle Akeem Spence, defense back Terry Hawthorne and defensive end Michael Buchanan – were drafted.
But the defense, in its first season under Banks and head coach Tim Beckman, was among the Big Ten's worst.
The Illini gave up 32.1 points a game, 11th in the 12-team conference. They were 10th in yards surrendered at 387.6 and created only 18 turnovers, more than only two other teams.
Some players complained that they didn't know what coaches were calling or wanted them to do.
Brown came into that season expecting to be a force. A year earlier, he had 19.5 tackles for losses, six sacks, created three turnovers and led the team in tackles with 108.
Then came injury, a shoulder problem that slowed him for weeks before ruling him out of the last three games. Now, with the Aug. 31 season opener against Southern Illinois close, he and Banks both say he's 100 percent healthy. And more happy to be back than Brown can quite explain.
"Yeah, man," he said, thinking for a moment about how to explain it. "It's what I love to do."
And both Monheim and Brown say, while little is expected from this Illini defense – they lost more than half the regulars, and the secondary is, at least in terms of experience, paper thin – people might be surprised.
"There's no question if we will be [better]," Monheim said. "We will be."
Brown adds that, in a bad season, the defense gelled.
"We came together. A year in the system, this being the second year, you kind of see things working," he said. "When you win two games, it's kind of hard not to come together."
In Monheim's breakthrough freshman season, he was easy to pick out on the field by the plays he made, and on the sideline by his shaved head. But he reported to preseason practice with a radically different look, with hair close to his shoulders.
He isn't trying to copy Sampson, he insists, just following a whim with fellow linebacker Mike Svetina.
"We decided at the end of the season, we're not going to cut our hair," he said.
Long hair, short hair, no hair, Banks doesn't care, he said.
"I'm all in if they play well," he said.