Jonathan Brown is used to being an older brother.
Growing up, he was the oldest of six siblings — three between his father Rod Brown and mother Candace Kinley, and three more from his mother and stepfather.
“It’s hard being the oldest,” Brown said. “Leadership is something my parents instilled in me from a young age. Doing the right things and making sure you’re on top of your game so you can bring everybody with you ... that’s something I’ve always had to do.”
He’s gone from being the oldest of six siblings to being one of just two seniors on the Illinois defense. He has had to be a leader his whole life, and it’s that leadership that defines the linebacker’s career at Illinois.
Brown was a special player dating back to his pee-wee days, and he developed a love for the game that Rod, a high school football coach in the Brown’s hometown of Memphis, Tenn., noticed right away.
Jonathan chose to play collegiately at Illinois and was rewarded with bowl appearances in his first two seasons in Champaign, where he played in all 24 games, including a monster sophomore season in which the linebacker notched 108 total tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks.
With high expectations riding into 2012, both personally and for the team, the Illini fell short. Brown was hampered most of the season with a shoulder injury, ultimately missing the final three games as Illinois limped to a 2-10 season and dropped its last nine games. To make matters worse, the Illini lost nine starters on defense to either graduation or the NFL Draft, leaving uncertainty on that side of the ball.
“Of course he was hurt last year, but he could have bolted and tried to leave the program,” Rod said. “But he wanted to stick around and see it through. So hopefully he’s going to be rewarded for his endurance staying to the course.”
If last year was the low point of Brown’s career, he’s rebounded just as high this season.
Brown, fully healthy now, has played with a fire in the first three games of the 2013 season, backing up preseason hype that put him on awards watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year), Dick Butkus Award (most outstanding linebacker) and the Bronko Nagurski Award (defensive player of the year).
Brown is leading the Big Ten in total tackles with 38, despite playing in one less game than second-place Anthony Hitchens from Iowa. His 12.7 tackles per game rank third nationally.
This season has not only been a success for Brown, but for the team. A close win over FCS foe Southern Illinois and a blowout over Cincinnati gave Illinois two quick wins before losing to No. 23 Washington at Soldier Field.
“You got to stay through the tough times, so when you get to the fun times, we’re here together,” Brown said. “That’s something I really wanted to instill in not only the defense, but the team. No matter what happens, we got to stick together. We got to be a unit. Because if we’re a unit, nothing can come against it, nothing can break it.”
“He has come back with a vengeance this year,” Rod added. “He’s really trying to show the doubters and the people that wrote Illinois off, he’s trying to play a part in that to get things turned around.”
But while his play on the field has been exceptional, it is Brown’s leadership on a young team that garners the most attention from his supporters — despite describing himself as “not the most talkative guy.”
“The thing I’m most impressed with is his overall leadership skills,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Not only is he a senior showing great leadership for us, but he’s one of our better players doing it. So he has some substance behind what he’s telling them to do.”
Even in last year’s train wreck of a season, Brown was still mentoring freshmen linebackers Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina, who were pressed into service for most of last year.
The results have been noticeable.
Monheim ranks second in the Big Ten in tackles per game this season, behind only Brown, and Svetina starts at the STAR (linebacker-safety hybrid) position, after playing weak side linebacker all of last season.
But despite Brown’s play, the Illini defense has struggled to slow down opposing offenses, ranking 113th in the FBS for total defense. The unit’s best performance, Week 2 against Cincinnati, was still shaky. Illinois surrendered 456 yards, but a stop at the goal line in the third quarter turned the tide in the 45-17 contest.
“I’m really proud of the way my guys performed out there,” Brown said after the Cincinnati win, adding a little emphasis on the word “my.”
“We stood up when it mattered.”
Sometimes it feels like it is Brown’s defense on the field. Including Brown and defensive end Tim Kynard, there are only two seniors on the defensive depth chart. The rest, mainly freshmen and sophomores, are learning as they go along.
While he might have been one of the only leaders earlier in the season, Brown feels as though he can take a step back and let some of the younger players fill niches. He made sure to point out that it was always “our” defense, referring to the group as a “band of brothers.”
“The guys are growing up, we’ve got a lot of young leaders out there,” he said. “It’s kind of a situation where at the beginning I had to take control, but now I’m starting to see more guys take command and step up and fill the roles that need to be filled.”
Going into Saturday’s game against Miami (Ohio), the Illini are 2-1 — exactly the team’s record three games into the year in 2012.
This year, however, has a different feel in it — and there is hope to surmount last year’s dismal campaign.
“It’s a good feeling,” Brown said. “I’ve said this from the beginning of the season but this team has a unique feel to it. There’s a closeness tied to this team that I really enjoy.”
His dad, at least, holds hope for the rest of the season and the remaining games of Brown’s career.
“I think he’s going to leave his imprint on Illinois and people can say that he never quit and he left it on the field and he left Illinois as a winner.”
Stephen can be reached at email@example.com and @steve_bourbon.