CHAMPAIGN — As promised, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase reached into his hip pocket and pulled out a smile Monday.
Two days after looking uncharacteristically glum in the wake of Illinois’ seventh consecutive football loss, Scheelhaase showed up at the weekly media briefing with a brighter look on his face.
That said, even Scheelhaase admitted he’s a long way from feeling rosy.
“When you are 2-8 and you are the quarterback, you’re not really feeling good about anything,” he said.
What did seem to cheer Scheelhaase and one of his teammates was a chance to talk about freshman linebacker Mason Monheim, as close to a feel-good story as there is on the Illini team.
Earlier Monday, the Big Ten Conference recognized Monheim as the league’s “Freshman of the Week” after making 15 tackles in a 17-3 loss to Minnesota. He leads all Big Ten freshmen with 74 tackles is averaging 9.5 tackles per game in conference play, sixth best in the league.
It’s the second time the Big Ten has honored him with that award, which doesn’t seem to surprise teammates who this summer came to believe Monheim may be someone special.
“He’s amazing,” senior defensive tackle Glenn Foster said. “He put on some big shoes and has contributed significantly to the defense. It’s not an easy thing for an incoming freshman to play that role.
“He’s done a wonderful job and he has a great future and career ahead of him.”
Monheim grew up an Ohio State fan in Orrville, Ohio. That’s the headquarters of the J.M. Smucker Co. Yep, the jam and jelly people.
It’s also where a prominent former Big Ten Conference basketball coach grew up. Yep, Bobby Knight.
Monheim was an honor roll student with a 4.0 grade point average at Orrville High School and he visited a number of Big Ten schools before deciding that Illinois would be his destination.
He enrolled early, got a jump on learning the defense and was quickly pressed into action when an injury sent linebacker Houston Bates to the sideline.
Since then, Monheim has been a fixture in the starting rotation and now that fellow linebacker Jonathan Brown is out with a shoulder injury, Monheim and another true freshman from Ohio, Mike Svetina, are both starting.
“I don’t know how many BCS teams are starting two true freshmen at linebacker, but it’s not many,” coach Tim Beckman said.
“I can’t say enough for Mason. Any time an 18-year-old steps up and plays Big Ten football as well as he does, it surprises us all.”
Monheim is destined to be a team captain and already he’s a voice that the veterans are listening to.
“Before every game he gives a little scouting report, a speech on our opponents,” Foster said. “He has an attitude. He says, ‘We need to go out there and punch these guys in the mouth.’ He’s a very aggressive player with a lot of heart.”
Monheim’s Friday night insights are full of inspiration and he has impressed Foster as a young player who won’t be intimidated.
“He’s a nasty player,” Foster said. “He’s ferocious. And he’s a good linebacker.”
At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Monheim is not physically imposing. But like Brown and recent Illini linebackers J Leman and Brit Miller, he has a nose for the football.
“There’s a whole lot good to say about Mason,” Scheelhaase said. “I remember talking to the defensive guys in camp about how the freshmen look and his was the one name that jumped to everyone’s mind.
“He has worked his butt off. He’s a lunch pail guy who gives great effort every day. The sky is the limit for him.”
Monheim nearly always talks about team goals, the importance of winning and why his efforts don’t matter much if the game ends in defeat.
But even he admits the experience he is getting as a freshman is paying off.
“Each day I get a little smarter,” he said. “I’m more relaxed. I definitely feel more comfortable.”
Beckman said Brown is making progress on his shoulder injury but couldn’t predict if he will play at 2:30 p.m., Saturday when Illinois plays its final home game of the season against Purdue. “The harness is off,” Beckman said.
The harness is off of Monheim, too. He may have won the job due to injury, but he’s holding onto it based on performance. A team that has come to trust him is now letting him do his thing.
SENIOR DAY — Beckman said Beau Sullivan, a walkon from Maroa-Forsyth High School, will participate in Saturday’s Senior Day festivities, just in case he decides not to play next season.
Sullivan is a fourth-year student who would still have another year of athletic eligibility in 2013.
“I’ve asked walk-ons like Beau Sullivan and Kaeman Mitchell to participate,” Beckman said. “Why not? They deserve it as much as anyone else. I would love to have them back next year, but that’s up to them. I believe it’s a special day.”