There wasn't a lot about the 2012 season to be happy about for Illinois, but if there was one area of the roster you looked at and thought "we just might be okay" about in regards to the future, it was definitely the linebacking corps. The headliner of the unit is Jonathan Brown, who is easily the most talented player on the defense.
Unfortunately for Brown, after putting up insane numbers in 2011, he dealt with injuries last season and only appeared in nine games. Which, in reality, should have been a disaster. Instead it served only to provide us with hope as freshmen like Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina played very well, and not just for freshmen, but for Big Ten linebackers.
All three are back this season, and should Brown be able to stay healthy, this unit could be strong enough by itself to improve the overall quality of the Illini defense.
With Brown, Monheim and Svetina -- Eric Finney is currently listed as the co-starter at the STAR position with Svetina, as he had arthroscopic surgery on his knee, and I really don't see Finney playing against Southern Illinois -- the Illini have three tackling machines. Brown is far and away the most disruptive force of the three -- he had 19.5 tackles for loss in 2011 -- but both Monheim and Svetina showed the ability to shed or avoid blocks and get to the ball carrier last season. They were also adequate in pass coverage.
However, if the Illini defense is going to truly improve in 2013, Monheim may have to add another dimension to his game. While Monheim led the Illini with 86 tackles last season, only six of them were for a loss, and he finished with only 1.5 sacks. The Illini will take help with the pass rush from wherever they can get it, and as we discussed in yesterday's defensive line preview, the Illini pass rush wasn't as poor as you might have thought last season.
But with so much inexperience on this year's defensive line, and the lack of a proven pass-rusher, I wouldn't be surprised to see Illini linebackers blitz more. Jonathan Brown has shown that he can get to the quarterback, but it will be interesting to see if Monheim can show the same ability coming from the middle rather than the weak-side like Brown does.
Of course, most of this preview has taken for granted that Jonathan Brown stays healthy, and as we've already seen during fall camp, that's certainly not a guarantee. While we know that Svetina can step up and replace Brown reasonably enough, what happens if either Svetina or Monheim get hurt?
That's where things get scary. Behind these three on the depth chart is Finney, a juco transfer, two sophomores in Zepheniah Grimes and Henry Dickinson behind Brown, and only freshmen -- redshirt or true -- T.J. Neal, B.J. Bello and James Crawford behind Monheim and Svetina.
So with a few bad breaks -- no pun intended -- to the linebacker corps this unit can go from a strength to a glaring weakness in a hurry.
Position Grade: B-
I would go higher if not for the extreme lack of depth behind the starters. On their own I'd give the starters a solid B+.
2012 Stats And Big Ten Ranking
22 sacks (8th), 66 tackles for loss (9th), 5.80 yards per play against (11th), 13 fumbles forced (1st), 4.53 yards allowed per rush (8th)
30 sacks, 85 tackles for loss, 5.0 yards per play against, 15 fumbles forced, 4.00 yards allowed per rush