CHAMPAIGN — Twelve months ago, Mason Monheim stood on this same grass practice field and wondered how he’d ever fit in.
“My head was spinning,” he said this week. “I did not know a thing that I was doing.”
At the time, Monheim was three months beyond his senior prom at Orrville High School in Ohio, where basketball coach Bob Knight grew up and where Smucker’s jellies and jams are produced.
He was a frightened freshman, a little lost, a little overwhelmed, a little unsure of his future.
Now, as he morphs gracefully from his freshman to his sophomore year, the Illini linebacker looks and acts like he owns the place.
“It’s like night and day,” he said, scanning what serves as his late summer learning laboratory.
Monheim’s new confidence and feeling of belonging is the result of a fairly remarkable first year of college football. With 22 days until the season opener against Southern Illinois, Monheim is being looked at to help lead an Illini defense that lost three players to the NFL draft and four more as free agents on current NFL training camp rosters.
With all that talent gone, in one year Monheim has gone from the kid whose head was spinning to the kid who seems incredibly grounded.
That’s what happens when you find the field on special teams, catch every coach’s eye on defense, get 10 starts and lead the entire team and all Big Ten freshmen in tackles.
It was enough to earn him recognition as one of Phil Steele’s second-team freshmen All-Americans and it’s enough to know that coach Tim Beckman is counting on Monheim to solidify a group of linebackers that should be one of the true strengths of the team.
“One year ago he hadn’t been through a winter workout, anything like that,” Beckman said. “We asked him and (fellow freshman) Mike Svetina to come in and start together at linebacker the last five games, and I know they have matured.”
Beckman also commented on young players whose first full year in the weight room has changed their body shape. Monheim is one of the first names out of the coach’s mouth.
“He just looks different,” Beckman said. “He’s much stronger.”
Monheim has undergone a head-to-toe makeover, including his hair style.
While he sported a buzz cut one year ago, he has unveiled long locks this season, something that has created a source of kidding between the player and his position coach, Mike Ward.
“Me and Mike Svetina talked about it and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve always been a shaved-head guy so let’s do it,’ ” Monheim said. “I was talking to coach Ward, and he said he was missing his hair so I thought I’d do it before all my hair (disappears) like his.”
Whether the longer hair gives Monheim Sampson-like strength remains to be seen, but more likely it will be the hours spent in the weight room. Monheim said the combination of greater knowledge and increased strength should make him more effective than last season, when he piled up 86 tackles, including a career-best 15 against Minnesota.
“We’re a lot better from where we were in the spring,” he said, speaking for the defense. “We’re a lot closer. We’re communicating more. The biggest thing is that we’re running to the ball. We’re playing fast and physical.
“I’m bigger (from 230 to 235 pounds) and definitely stronger. This game is so much about knowledge. Everyone is big and strong but the guys who have the extra instincts, the extra knowledge of the game to help anticipate things, that’s the key.”
Just one season into his college career, Monheim is viewed as a veteran.
“I don’t feel like an old guy, but I definitely feel a lot more experienced,” he said. “We’re a young team, so players have to coach each other.”
When junior college transfer Eric Finney went down with an apparent knee injury on Wednesday, it meant redshirt freshman B.J. Bello would likely move up on the depth chart. And it meant that as a team leader, it was time for Monheim to pull Bello aside and give him a vote of confidence.
“I’m good buddies with B.J.,” Monheim said. “He works hard. The main thing with him is that he needs experience. This could be his time to step up. He’s looking forward to it and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do. If things are bad for Eric, we’re not looking back. We’re just going to keep moving forward.”
A likeable trait of this defense is that Beckman has some young players who seem to have an unquenchable thirst for football. Monheim and fellow linebacker Svetina are two of them. Defensive tackle Austin Teitsman, a growling tough guy, is another. So are a pair of freshmen who have caught Beckman’s attention in early drills — cornerback Darius Mosely from O’Fallon and defensive end Dawuane Smoot from Groveport, Ohio.
Like Monheim a year ago, they’re feeling their way, wondering where it will take them.
They’d be wise to follow Monheim’s lead. He found the path from a freshman who wasn’t sure to a sophomore who is looked to for answers.