CHAMPAIGN - Tim Beckman's "Operation New Era" aims to create a winning culture for the Illinois football program. The program seemed to stagnate in recent years, and the Illini limped their way to a six-loss regular season finish before ending the year on high note against UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
But as far as junior linebacker Jonathan Brown and his cohorts are concerned, the Illini defense has been in good shape for quite some time. The unit surprised many - both locally and nationally - with its attacking-style defense that recorded 41 sacks on the season and ranked second in the Big Ten in yards allowed.
There are voids to be filled, however. Gone from last season is defensive end Whitney Mercilus, the Ted Hendricks Award winner who should be a taken in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. LB Ian Thomas is another big loss. The under-appreciated three-year starter was the vocal leader of the Illini defense. And gone is Tavon Wilson, the top cover-corner and one of the team's leading tacklers.
Brown knows his role must expand for his unit to perform near the same level as it did last year. The junior from Memphis, Tenn., will be counted on to direct traffic in the middle of the Illinois defense, a job that was reserved for other players in the past.
"The biggest thing is just being a leader, communicating with all 10 other guys," Brown said after a spring practice at Memorial Stadium. "Last year, I could really just stay in the box, communicate with Ian and not worry about anything. This year I just have to step up and be a leader. All those guys really helped this defense out last year. The biggest thing is just stepping up and going out there and making plays again."
Brown made plenty of plays in his sophomore campaign. He was a second-team All-Big Ten pick, but many felt his breakout season earned Brown a spot among the conference's elite. He views the snub as a challenge, and he knows he'll be counted on even more as an upperclassman.
"I've been feeling (overlooked) for a long time, but that type of stuff doesn't bother me," Brown said. "As long as we're winning games and we're going out there and getting the job done, I don't care if I'm getting any recognition. I wouldn't say I have a lot to prove. I'd say I have a lot to accomplish. Last year I came out and made some plays. This year I have to take it to another level. That's probably the biggest thing for this year."
Brown and his teammates are admittedly still in the process of building the type of relationship they had with Vic Koenning's defensive staff with new defensive coordinator Tim Banks and his coaches.
Five spring practices are in the books. Brown and the rest of the defense are starting to grow more accustomed with their new defensive sets and the coaches' personalities. Brown doesn't appear to be fazed by the changes. For him, it's all about strapping on the helmet and going back to work.
"It's something I've been doing my whole life, and it's just something you can't explain," Brown said. "Just getting out here, getting to play the sport you love, the thing you love the most - it's thrilling. I had to knock a couple cobwebs off the first day, but once you get back into it, it felt great."
Brown isn't shy about his goals for the Illini defense this fall.
"I see a lot of stuff working (in practice) right now," Brown said. "I see a lot of good stuff. I'm excited for it. You can always get better, no matter how good you were. The biggest thing I think we need to improve on is takeaways, getting the ball back to the offense and helping them out. I don't see why we can't be the number one defense in the country."