Brown looking to shape his Illinois legacy

DAVID MERCER (Associated Press)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown just wishes it would go away. He kneed a Northwestern player in the groin two years ago in a play that lives on the Internet.

It's not hard to find, and the video often carries references to ''cheap shot.''

''It was probably one of the biggest mistakes of my playing career,'' he says, one he paid for with a one-game suspension.

But keep looking at the images attached to Brown's name and you see another one: Brown on the Illinois sideline with Dick Butkus, the linebacker against whom all Illinois linebackers are measured. That image is probably a better fit for the memory Brown will leave behind when he's done in Champaign.

The player from Memphis who bypassed chances to play at Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas Tech leads his team and the Big Ten in tackles with 10.1 a game.

Even in 2011, the cheap shot, bad as it was, was a blip compared to the rest of Brown's season - second-team All-Big Ten, a team-best 108 tackles, sixth in the country in tackles for loss with an average of 1.63 a game.

Brown chose Illinois, he said, because he liked the people - players, coaches, everyone. He says he misses his family - three brothers, three sisters, his mother, as well as his father and step-father, both of whom have worked as football coaches.

The game, Brown said, always seemed to come naturally to him. ''The first time I put the helmet on, to be honest.''

But at a BCS school, even one where losses outnumber wins, ''Everybody has those instincts. Everybody's big, everybody's fast,'' Brown said. ''It's about how hard you work.''

His coaches says he's instinctual, a linebacker's linebacker who reads a play and responds with precision and force. But they also say he puts in hours of late-night work off the field to develop his game.

''He's a film rat, always studying film,'' defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. ''You come out late, when we leave as coaches, and you see him still in there studying film. To me, that invaluable. You see the kids feed off that.''

The kids, in this case, are the very young defense that Brown leads. Of the 23 defensive players Illinois (3-5, 0-4 Big Ten) used against Penn State on Saturday, 14 are freshmen or sophomores.

''You come back to the sidelines and you've got all those young kids and something went wrong - if he panics, everybody else thinks they should panic; as long as he's calm, everybody else is calm,'' Banks said. ''He's been great, a stabilizing force for us.''

But the 21-year-old Brown does not lead his team with a roar. In conversation, he is calm, cool.

Asked to explain how you play against the sort of big, physical linemen that populate the Big Ten, he makes it sound easy, like nothing could be more natural than playing off the block of a charging 300-pound man in a helmet and pads.

''Just read and react, man. That's the thing,'' Brown said.

In his three-plus seasons at Illinois, the Illini have never won more than seven games. Last season was a low point - two wins, none in the Big Ten and Brown, struggling with a shoulder injury, was at times ineffective and at times couldn't play at all.

In spite of that struggle, Brown has never again slipped the way he did against Northwestern. He's says he's not the same guy. He says he's grown up.

With the season winding down, Brown is now one of the Illinois players who talks about finding a way to a bowl game, a feat that will require the Illini to win in the Big Ten for the first time in more than two years, and win three of their last four.

He's been saying the same thing for weeks: The Illini can get there, they really can. And getting there, leaving something behind in Champaign, seems to matter a lot to Brown: ''This is my last season - whatever happens this season, my name's going to be on it.''


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