- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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You can't say Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown had a bad season in 2012. He led his team with 9.5 tackles for loss and was named a Butkus Award semifinalist.
Still, last season is one Brown would mostly like to put in the trash folder.
"Last year was just a rough year all around," he told ESPN.com. "It was just one of those years, man."
He suffered along with the Illini during a 2-10 season, and he suffered physically, too. Nicked up after the opener, he said he didn't start to get healthy again until the middle of the season. Then he incurred a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the final three games and sit out all of spring practice.
The good news is that Brown feels healthy now after rehabbing the shoulder all offseason.
"The whole rehab process was excellent," he said. "We didn't rush back into anything, and took our time. I feel like I've come back even a little bit stronger."
Brown has been participating in voluntary team workouts and testing his shoulder by hitting sleds in individual work. He says he will be fully cleared for all drills when preseason practice starts next month. When asked if he was anxious to hit somebody again, Brown replied, "Beyond anxious. Beyond."
A healthy Brown could do wonders for the Illini defense, which finished 11th in the Big Ten in points allowed (32.1 ppg) last season. This is a guy who had 108 tackles, six sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss and an interception as a sophomore in 2011. He was still learning the game then, and after a spring in which he spent extra time in the film room -- perhaps the lone benefit from his injury -- he feels older and wiser now.
"I'm expecting to do big things this year," he said. "I feel like I'm at a different level than I was last year and the year before because of my experience. That has put me in a position where I'm ready to excel from where I am now to another level."
But Brown said whatever numbers he puts up won't matter much if the team stinks again during his senior season. The linebacker spot is at least one reason for Illini optimism.
Injuries there allowed Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina to pile up a lot of playing as true freshmen. Those two are now a year older and will be joined by junior college transfer Eric Finney, who is expected to start at the Star linebacker position. Other young players like Houston Bates give defensive coordinator Tim Banks some good depth to work with.
Brown likes what he has seen out of that group and the defense as a whole so far.
"We've really come together," he said. "We're probably not as talented as we were last year, because last year we had a lot of good players. But it just didn't mesh quite right. This year, we've got a lot of guys who are hungry, a lot of guys willing to work. It's going to be exciting."
Brown says he needs to continue working on his lateral quickness, retraining his muscles after so long away from competitive football. But he's not going to hold anything back during fall camp or during his final season in Champaign. He hopes to make 2013 a much more memorable one.