Chicago Colleges: Justin Green

A year ago, Mason Monheim was in high school.

He's now among the leaders of an Illinois team desperately trying to get back on track for the 2013 season after a 2-10 clunker last fall. Ideally, Monheim could play behind several veterans for a few years, develop physically and mentally and then claim a leadership position. But a wave of injuries, combined with Monheim's emergence as a starting linebacker, have fast-tracked him to the forefront.

[+] EnlargeMason Monheim
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanIllinois LB Mason Monheim said he's trying to learn the nuances of the other defensive positions so that he can become a better leader.
The good news: Monheim is OK with taking the reins. The better news: he likes it.

"I feel more of a leadership role," Monheim recently told ESPN.com. "I'm really taking ahold of the defense. I'm trying to figure other people's positions so I can help them out, and know what they're doing to help me. I'm trying to be more vocal, just trying to bring that fire a little bit, to the group.

"It's a lot better and easier when there's a little fire underneath you."

Monheim said he's not fiery by nature but likes bringing energy to Illinois' spring workouts, whether it's critiquing a teammate or celebrating with them after big plays. Despite his young age, his teammates are responding to him well.

"They're ready for that criticism," he said. "Everybody's trying to learn, whether you've been here for a few years or not."

Much of Monheim's education came between the lines on Saturdays last fall. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Monheim started the final 10 games for Illinois and led all Big Ten freshmen in tackles with 86.

His tackles-per-game average of 7.2 tied for 15th in the league, while no other freshman ranked in the top 50. Monheim had six tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, to go along with two forced fumbles, an interception a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.

He earned freshman All-America honors from Phil Steele and made our All-Big Ten freshman team along with fellow Illini linebacker Mike Svetina.

"I guess I didn't expect to play so much, but I went in with an open mind," Monheim said. "I knew if I would get an opportunity, I'd make the best of it for the team. That's what happened."

Monheim, a two-time Division IV all-state selection from Orville High School in Ohio, likely would have played for Toledo if Illini coach Tim Beckman had remained the Rockets' head man. But days after taking his official visit to Toledo, Monheim learned Beckman had accepted the Illinois job.

Monheim, who had received several Mid-American Conference offers, jumped on the chance to follow Beckman to Champaign.

"When I came in [last] summer, I didn't know what to expect," Monheim said. "But it wasn't anything that I was scared or didn't believe in my abilities. I have a lot of great teammates. They made it easy on me."

Monheim's challenge this spring is to better understand his teammates' responsibilities so he can lead them this fall.

Illinois could have three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who sparkled last week at pro day after not receiving a combine invite. The secondary loses cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.

The biggest reasons for optimism can be found at linebacker, as both Monheim and Svetina return along with Jonathan Brown, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011.

"We're more together as a group," Monheim said of Illinois' defense. "We're not focused on the individual abilities and talents. When you're together, nothing can break you."

Illinois spring game recap

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
5:43
PM CT
We're recapping all of the Big Ten spring games that took place Saturday. Let's check out how the Orange and Blue Game went down in Champaign.

You can read coverage of Illinois' spring game here and here and here. Here's the full stat sheet.

Star of the game: Redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson rushed for 130 yards -- including scampers of 20, 18 and 68 yards -- on 20 carries, and added a game-high six receptions for the victorious Blue squad. Defensive end Michael Buchanan earns a mention after racking up 12 tackles, including 4.5 "sacks."

How it went down: The run game and defense lifted the Blue squad to a 13-12 victory against the Orange team. Nick Immekus kicked a 47-yard field goal with 1:22 left in the game, and Justin Staples sealed the win with a sack of Nathan Scheelhaase.

"Come Monday, they'll be having steaks and we'll be having beans and weenies," Scheelhaase, who suffered his first spring game loss, told reporters. "Which means Chipotle can probably expect a lot of business from the Orange squad."

Mmmm, Chipotle.

Not surprisingly, there was a mix of good and bad as the Illini wrapped up their first spring session under new head coach Tim Beckman. Buchanan had a huge day and looks like the clear successor to All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks in 2011 (16). Staples also had a nice performance, and the defense made plenty of big plays. Ferguson's performance also bodes well as Illinois lacks depth at running back and wants multiple options.

On the flip side, the offensive line struggled to keep pass-rushers out of the backfield. Quarterback play also was spotty -- Scheelhaase completed just 11 of 26 passes; Reilly O'Toole completed 19 of 31 attempts, but took four sacks -- although lousy weather made it a tough day to throw.

The Illini could get some contributions from players they're auditioning in multiple roles. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from O'Toole, and cornerback Justin Green had a 15-yard run. Reserve quarterback Miles Osei caught four passes, although he fared well as a signal caller, completing 8 of 12 pass attempts.

Illinois' defense looks strong coming out of the spring, and its front seven should be one of the Big Ten's best. Offense clearly is the priority entering the summer months as players continue to learn a new system.

"We got to get better, but not just at quarterback," Beckman said. "That's the one that's always looked at. That's the one that’s always critiqued. [But it's] every position. If we want to be a champion, and we have the capabilities of doing that, we need to step our game up this summer and in two-a-days."

Spring game preview: Illinois

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
2:51
PM CT
Seven Big Ten teams hold their spring games Saturday, and we're taking a closer look at each one of them.

Next up: The annual Orange and Blue Spring Game at Illinois. Here are all the vitals:

When: 3 p.m. ET (2 p.m. local time), Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium

Admission: Free. All seating will be in the east stands. Free parking is available in the lots surrounding the stadium and Assembly Hall.

TV: The game will be streamed live on both BTN2Go and the Big Ten Digital Network. The Big Ten Network will broadcast the game on tape-delay at 7 p.m. ET Sunday.

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy with scattered thunderstorms possible, temperatures between 66-76 degrees, 50 percent chance of rain, winds at 19-20 mph.

What to watch for: Illinois should have one of the more entertaining spring games in the Big Ten. New head coach Tim Beckman said players will approach it "as if it's a real game." The team's seniors were divided into two groups and drafted teams earlier this week. The game will be played with a normal clock in the first half and a running clock in the second half (except if the game is close in the final two minutes). Another unique tidbit: Beckman will go into the stands and select Illinois students to call two plays per half for both teams.

Beckman wants to put on a show for the fans, who should get a decent sense of the new systems Illinois is using on both sides of the ball. The Illini are employing an up-tempo spread attack on offense, and it will be interesting to see how quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole are adjusting. There are depth issues at both wide receiver and running back, and Illinois is bolstering the spots with players such as Miles Osei, a reserve quarterback who could see time at both receiver and running back Saturday, and starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who will see time at receiver. Another defensive back, Justin Green, is being used as a running back. Top wideout Darius Millines (foot) is out, so plenty of others will have opportunities to make plays.

The changes aren't as dramatic on defense, as coordinator Tim Banks uses a similar scheme to his predecessor, Vic Koenning. Illinois looks very strong in the defensive front seven, and coaches have praised players such as Michael Buchanan, Jonathan Brown and Justin Staples. Safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, both projected starters, are out for the game.

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