Mason Monheim attempts to circles the wagons for Illini defense


Illinois linebacker Mason Monheim has a bit of country flair to him.

Monheim grew up in Orrville, Ohio, home to roughly 8,000 residents and the J.M. Smucker Company made famous by its sandwich spreads and lids designed to look like farm-style checkered tablecloths. For spring break this year, he went fishing with a couple of teammates. (One of them reeled in a 20-pound shark off the Florida coast.) This summer, he showed up at Big Ten media days in Chicago in cowboy boots, hair slicked back into a pony tail and a bolo tie around his neck. The tie clasp, of course, was stamped with a bald eagle flying below the words American Pride.

"I'm a patriot," he explained.

The charming appeal of simplicity and a touch of twangy panache match Monheim's style on the football field. Like any aspiring cowboy, he makes hard work look good. His challenge in his final year at Illinois will be trying to get the Big Ten's worst defense to follow suit.

Monheim, a watch list candidate for the Lombardi and Butkus Awards this season, made 294 tackles in his first three seasons with the Illini. Only one active player at the FBS level has more stops to his name heading into the season. Monheim also tied for the most forced fumbles (4) among Big Ten players last season. He says his approach to making plays is simple.

"Line up on every play like it's the only play," he said. "That's why I try to do."

The Illini defense as a unit hasn't had the same success as their leader and middle linebacker. Illinois finished last in the conference in rushing defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense in 2014. For the program to continue its steady progression and return to bowl season for a second straight year under beleaguered coach Tim Beckman, the defense will have to take a step forward. Monheim's teammates and coaches think he's the guy to help raise the level of play around.

"It's his year. He's a senior," Beckman said. "I know that he is willing to accept the challenge. He's fun to coach because he's not just working hard, but he's coaching others around him. He's definitely a Butkus nominee. That young man has started a lot of football games and has done an exceptional job of becoming better and better in every one of them."

If Monheim starts each game this season, and the Illini make a bowl, he will tie the program record for career starts. He started 10 games as a true freshman and immediately began earning his teammates' respect. He led the team with 86 tackles that year and, according to Beckman, showed early signs of having the "it" factor that turns players into on-field coaches. The following season he settled into the Mike linebacker position and averaged 8.1 tackles per game at the hub of the defense.

"He's been the guy since his freshman year," said offensive lineman Ted Karras. "He's got a lot of weight as far as being a leader. Being the guy since you were 18 years old, it's a lot of pressure, but you're the voice. He's started since Day 1. Guys listen to him."

Beckman and co-defensive coordinators Tim Banks and Mike Phair hope guys are watching him, too. Monheim said he's been focused this offseason on helping the defense create more turnovers in 2015. They finished last season with 19 takeaways, Monheim was involved in seven of them.

To improve the defense, the team put together three cut-ups in the film room: one of all their turnovers, one with all the missed opportunities and one of NFL players taking the ball away from opponents. Monheim said he specifically studied Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, another Ohio product known for always being around the ball.

"He's a monster out there," Monheim said. "He makes plays. He forces turnovers. He plays the game how it should be played."

Monheim said he also turns to former Illinois linebacker Jeremy "J" Leman for advice from time to time. Leman was a consensus All-American for the Illini in 2007 when the team made its last trip to the Rose Bowl. Since then, Illinois hasn't won more than seven games in a season. If the team has a chance to pass that mark in 2015, it will likely need another All-American caliber effort from its middle linebacker.