CHAMPAIGN – Discretion doesn’t exactly run in the Monheim family.
On football weekends, several of the clan pile into the family’s RV while a few cars follow in pursuit.
Dozens make the trek from tiny Orrville, Ohio – home to Smucker’s – to Champaign to support Mason Monheim, a sophomore linebacker for Illinois.
“We don’t want to be too obnoxious,” said John Monheim, Mason’s father. “We don’t have any big fatheads [on the RV] or anything like that.”
But it’s hard to miss the posse wearing No. 43 jerseys as it rolls into Memorial Stadium – just as it has been hard to miss Mason flying around the field.
He debuted in a big way last fall, leading the Illini and all Big Ten freshmen with 86 tackles and providing a reason for optimism amid the doldrums of a 2-10 season. This year, he is second on the team behind Jonathan Brown with 30 tackles.
His knowledge of the defense is clearer after spending his first year trying to get by without getting embarrassed.
“I know what I’m doing now,” Monheim said. “Now I can focus more on the keys of the offense, and I’m not really focused on, ‘Oh, what do I have to do on this play?’”
Monheim’s lack of elite size – he’s listed at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds – played into his three-star rating in high school from Scout.com and Rivals.com. But coach Tim Beckman and his staff, who recruited Monheim at Toledo, saw the intangibles necessary for Monheim to transcend his measurements.
On a young defense trying to find its way, Monheim has carved out a niche as a leader.
“I feel like I’m in a role where, if something needs to be said, I’ll say it,” he said.
There are still some things Monheim can do to look the part of a top linebacker. To that end, he has been busy doing the necessary leg – and upper-body – work in the weight room.
“Where a year ago he was hanging on to tackles, now he’s making tackles,” inside linebackers coach Mike Ward said. “A year ago, we were hoping he wasn’t going to get blocked. Now he’s shedding blocks.”
He didn’t pack on the pounds, but he trimmed significant body fat and gained muscle – all while not giving up his treasured Smucker’s strawberry jam.
“You go to give him a hug,” John Monheim said, “and it’s like, ‘Holy smokes, who is this kid?’”
Mason hopes the answer becomes clear by the end of his college career: Someone who carried on the legacy of Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Simeon Rice and other great Illini linebackers.
“If it’s not a goal, then there’s something wrong,” Monheim said. “But I’m worried about the teammate I’m being now. I just want to win games. You have to win games to be recognized.”