Jonathan Brown was prominent among Illinois season stat leaders in 2011. He led the team with 102 tackles in 11 games, 24 more than senior teammate Ian Thomas, who played in all 12 games. Brown was credited with 19 tackles for loss, second only to the 19.5 by defensive end Whitney Mercilus. He had six sacks, four pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, one interception and one forced fumble.
All things considered, Brown had an outstanding season.
"I think it ended up all right. Not as good as I wanted it to, but about as good as it could have been. For my first season being out on the football field, it was a pretty all right season."
He was named to the All-Big 10 second team by media and Honorable Mention by the coaches. Phil Steele also gave him a second-team nod. But that isn't good enough for the ambitious Brown.
"It definitely motivated me to work harder. When you see those teams and see there's somebody better than you out there, it definitely adds fuel to the fire for the bowl game as well as for next season."
Is the Memphis product looking forward to playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl?
"Oh yeah. Who wouldn't want to go to California? It's my second time going out there. I have an aunt that stays in California, so I'm pretty excited to go back out there."
Both Illinois and UCLA are playing the bowl game with interim head coaches. Is the game a punishment or celebration for two underachieving teams facing many changes in their futures?
"It is definitely a celebration. We're celebrating the end of the season...wrap it up good. Winning back-to-back bowl games has never been done around here. We're not eager to think about anything else.
"We'll worry about the coaching change when we get back in January. Right now, we're practicing every day as hard as we can."
New coach Tim Beckman will incorporate his own defensive schemes beginning in January. He has spoken with the team briefly, but Brown looks forward to getting better acquainted. He feels the team has accepted the changes in a positive way.
"For the most part, I would say. Once I meet him and get a chance to talk to him, I think it will be a positive."
Brown has great respect for Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator who has taken over leadership for the bowl game. He says he coaches the same regardless of his role.
"He's pretty much a head coach as he is a d-coordinator. Very structured. He wants you to fly around and have fun. So there really isn't much of a difference. The biggest difference is he's stretched out to more guys."
Koenning has made some personnel changes, especially on special teams. That affects Brown in a limited way.
"I'm on the kickoff team, that's probably the only difference."
Studies of UCLA remind Brown of another Pac-12 team the Illini faced this season.
"They're very similar to Arizona State. They're like a lot of Pac-12 teams."
What will it take to slow down the potent Bruin offense?
"Just staying in our gaps. They're a big downhill team, downhill from the shotgun, something we're not used to. So just staying in our gaps, being disciplined.
"The team that they probably remind me the most of in the Big 10 is Michigan. That game, we got out of our gaps a lot, and it really cost us a lot of big runs. If we stay in our gaps, we'll get to the quarterback, and it will be a great day."
Brown isn't making predictions, but he is confident the Illini will play their best December 31st.
"I know how we practice, I know what we can do."