Brown embracing leadership role for Illini

Jonathan Brown was one of the leading playmakers on the standout Illinois defense last season. But that didn't necessarily mean he was a leader.

As a sophomore who was in a starting role for the first time, he took a backseat to the team's upperclassmen when it came to leading. But now, as the veteran star of the linebacking corps, he's changing his approach.

"I've been working on being a better leader," Brown told ESPN.com. "It's just doing everything right and talking more. I've got to make sure I do everything right so everyone else will do their jobs right."

Brown did a lot of things right last year, piling up 108 tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss, along with six sacks. He checked in at No. 9 earlier this week in our Big Ten Top 25 player rankings. Of course, Brown's 2011 season also included a one-game suspension for kneeing Northwestern's Patrick Ward in the groin.

But Brown appears to have learned from that mistake and put it behind him. He has no trouble taking on a leadership role and has the respect of his teammates in doing so.

"It's like second nature to me," he said. "I'm real comfortable doing that. I feel I have a little more credibility this year, but anybody on our team can step up and lead."

Brown went into last season as a relative unknown. That changed in a hurry after some of his big early-season performances, and he enters 2012 on several awards lists. That won't change his mindset.

"I don't pay too much attention to it," he said. "It doesn't help us win ball games. Being on those lists is a great honor, but at the end of the day, we've still got to go out and win."

Brown said his other offseason focus was just to "fly around and have fun." While it may seem hard to believe, given the speed and energy he appeared to play with last season, Brown admitted to being tight and nervous at times on the field. Former teammate Whitney Mercilus played with passion and drive at all times last year, and Brown is trying to emulate that.

That could mean some rough emotional times for opposing quarterbacks. Even with a new coordinator in Tim Banks this year, Brown expects the Illini to once again be very tough on defense.

"We're going to bring excitement," he said. "That's what we like to do as a defense."