Illinois' Jonathan Brown raises the bar

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Jonathan Brown's watershed moment as a football player won't come if he earns All-Big Ten honors, if he's named an All-American, or if he leads Illinois in tackles.

Brown won't know he has arrived until his stepfather has no critiques for him after games.

He might be waiting a while.

His stepfather, Richard Kinley, played defensive end and linebacker at Middle Tennessee and helped mold him as a player, particularly during grueling backyard workouts at their home in Memphis.

"My stepdad instilled it in me," Brown told ESPN.com. "You have to realize what the game is worth."

Brown has learned to value the game, and Kinley's opinions, which are offered after every contest. Even after Brown's coming-out party in Illinois' defense-driven win against Arizona State last year -- Brown recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception en route to earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors -- Kinley had a few notes for his stepson.

The 6-1, 235-pound Brown flourished in Vic Koenning's assertive defense last fall, leading Illinois with 108 tackles. Just a true sophomore, he finished second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 19.5, trailing only his teammate Whitney Mercilus (22.5), and tallied six sacks, a forced fumble, two fumbles recovered and four pass breakups. Few Big Ten linebackers put up more impressive numbers.

But the 2011 season wasn't all positive for Brown and his Illini teammates, who got off to a team-record 6-0 start before dropping their next six games. Two weeks after the Arizona State triumph, cameras spotted Brown kneeing Northwestern offensive lineman Patrick Ward in the groin following a play in Illinois' victory. The infraction led to a one-game suspension.

Despite Brown's terrific season, when you Google his name, eight of the first 10 entries are about his personal foul in the Northwestern game.

"It was a very disappointing mistake," Brown said. "That was me being young, not thinking and being caught up in the moment. It brought my focus into what is really going on. ... It's still a maturing process."

We shouldn't see similar missteps from Brown going forward, but he's not about to downshift how he plays the game, either. He moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker this spring, as Illinois' new coaching staff heightens his leadership role on the defense.

Tim Banks' defensive scheme is similar to what Koenning ran, although the linebackers are dropping into coverage a little more.

Brown isn't shy about his ability, acknowledging he's "blessed with a lot of talent." His father, Rod, played linebacker at Memphis and coached in high school and in the Arena2 league.

But perhaps Brown's strongest attribute is his drive.

"In football, you've got to play with a passion," he said. "If you play with that passion, you can't be stopped."

Despite not starting as a freshman in 2010, Brown set three goals for his sophomore season: be All-Big Ten, be an All-American and lead the team in tackles. He went 2-for-3, earning second-team all-conference honors from the media.

"I have big goals," he said. "If you don't set the bar high, you'll never reach the bar."

How are Brown's goals for 2012?

He paused and smiled.