Back in August, when the Illini football players were entrenched in Camp Rantoul, Mason Monheim was a hot topic of conversation.
As a true freshman, the linebacker was making a quick first impression on the veterans.
“He was the first name that would jump to everyone’s mind,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “He’s a guy that really just worked his butt off. He’s one of those lunch-pail guys that comes in with a great attitude every day, gives great effort and has gotten better and better as the weeks have gone on.”
Monheim has backed the talk with his play on the field. He’s started in eight straight games and is Illinois’ leading tackler with 74 through 10 games this season. After recording a career-high 15 tackles and half a sack against Minnesota on Saturday, Monheim received Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for the second time in his brief Illini career.
“I’m proud of this freshmen class,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “We have a lot of Masons and a lot of guys that have stepped up and don’t always act like they’re 18 years old.”
Monheim was named freshman of the week after his 11-tackle, one-forced fumble performance against Penn State on Sept. 29, the first week of Big Ten play. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker from Orrville, Ohio, is the lone Illinois player to receive one of the conference’s weekly awards.
The Illini defense hasn’t played up to lofty preseason expectations, but Monheim remains a bright spot in an otherwise bleak season.
And while Monheim is listed as a freshman on the depth chart, his teammates talk him up as if he’s a vocal veteran leader.
“He has a leading attitude,” senior defensive tackle Glenn Foster said. “He’s a very aggressive player and he has a lot of heart. You don’t see that too much out on the field, and from a young guy, it’s a great thing. We need it.”
Junior Jonathan Brown, last season’s leading tackler, has been hampered with injuries this season and missed the Minnesota game. Another freshman linebacker from Ohio, Mike Svetina, started in Brown’s place and has spelled him all year. Injuries and a lack of depth have forced the two Ohio freshmen linebackers into active roles much sooner than most college freshmen.
But first-year players or not, the duo from Ohio isn’t using inexperience and youth as an excuse. The two expect to be regular contributors to a defense that has performed better in recent weeks, despite allowing an average of 31.5 points per game.
“We don’t really look at each other and say, ‘Hey, we’re freshmen,’” Monheim said after the game against Ohio State on Nov. 3. “We look at each other and say, ‘Let’s do this.’”
For an Illinois team in a 12-game Big Ten losing streak, Monheim and Svetina offer a sign of hope for the future of the program.
“He has definitely a bright, bright future,” Scheelhaase said. “Just with how good his instincts are now, with how tough of a player he is now, the sky is the limit for him.”
Chad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @cthornburg10.