Linebacker Legacy at Illinois Begins with Butkus
Sept. 20, 2013
By John Lock, Illinois Athletic Communications
It always starts with Butkus.
"The greatest linebackers in school history?" Illinois linebackers coach Mike Ward said. "Everyone knows Dick Butkus. He might be the greatest linebacker in the game's history."
He just might be. The Illini play under his retired No. 50 and the Chicago Bears have retired his No. 51. He is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame and he was named a top-10 player - of any position - in NFL history by NFL.com.
"When you think of the linebacker position, you think of Dick Butkus," sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim said. "The award given to the best linebacker is named after him."
Then comes the rest of the list of legendary Illini linebackers.
Howard and Hardy were back-to-back Butkus Award winners in 1994 and 1995, making Illinois the only school in the country with back-to-back winners of the award. Wilson helped the Illini get to the 2008 Rose Bowl, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2010 and is still playing in the NFL.
"I knew John Holecek and Dana Howard played here, but I walked in to my office the first day and saw that Ray Nitschke played here, too," Ward said. "That's a `wow' moment."
Holecek might be the least well-known of his running mates at Illinois--Howard, Hardy and Rice--and Holecek played eight years in the NFL. Nitschke was one of Illinois' first great linebackers, along with Bill Burrell, who finished fourth in the 1959 Heisman voting, and Charles Boerio, a first-team All-American in 1951.
"And J Leman," Monheim said. "I've gotten the chance to know him pretty well, so that's been special."
Leman was the heart and soul of Illinois' 2008 Rose Bowl defense and the Illinois' linebacker corps' most recent first-team All-American.
And now it's this group's turn to continue Linebacker U. Brown is on the watch list for the Butkus Award, given annually to the top linebacker in the country. In his sophomore season in 2011, Brown ranked sixth in the nation in tackles for loss with 19.5 and was an All-Big Ten selection. He racked up big numbers, including 17 tackles against Ohio State and 4.0 tackles for loss against Wisconsin.
"JB is such an instinctive player," Monheim said. "He sees something and immediately reacts. That's something I've learned from him. I tend to be more conservative, but he just reacts and makes the big play. That's what makes him great."
But the stats didn't come quite as easily for Brown last year, and neither did the wins. Brown's season was cut short by a shoulder injury with three games to go and the Illini stumbled to a 2-10 season.
One of the bright spots from the 2012 season was Monheim, who became the first true-freshman at Illinois to lead the team in tackles. In fact, he led all Big Ten freshmen in tackles with 83. One previous redshirt-freshman who led Illinois in tackles? He's on "the list": Dana Howard.
"Did you know Dana had 595 career tackles?" Monheim said when Howard's name comes up on the list of great UI linebackers. "When I looked it up, I knew it was going to be a big number and I was still shocked at how many that is."
After his big freshman year, Monheim earned freshman All-American honors and a reputation on the team for being a spark plug on the defense, with Brown and the rest of the linebackers feeding off his energy throughout the season.
"He's really a self-made player," Ward said of Monheim. "He got thrown into the fire really fast last year as a true-freshman, and I'm sure his head was spinning, but he went out and made himself better each and every day."
With a healthy Brown back for 2013, the Illini expect big things from the duo, and they have lived up to that in the first three games. Brown has racked up 38 tackles in three games and Monheim has added 30 to rank first and third in the Big Ten, respectively. Each also has added 2.5 TFLs and has two QB hurries. But both Brown and Monheim stress that for Illinois to improve on last year's season, no one can be thinking about individual accomplishments.
"Zeph Grimes is a great player," Brown added. "Houston Bates is another one."
Deflecting the attention has been a point of focus. The group is stressing a `we' over `me' attitude this year, and Ward is helping each player work on his weaknesses to strengthen the group.
"We talk about `no wasted steps,'" Ward said. "No wasted steps can make an average player good, and no wasted steps can make a good player great."
So they hit the meeting room - with all those Illini linebacker greats on the wall, the ones they learn about and try to emulate - and study film, trying to get better than they were yesterday. They take everything one day at a time.
"We can't think about how good we can be as a unit," Brown said. "That's how you get lost along the way. We need to focus on today and tomorrow. If we do that, then we'll find out just how good we can be."
Maybe one day they'll be on the list.
ILLINOIS LINEBACKER GREATS