Former Ron Zook Recruit Taking Lessons Learned at Illinois to the NFL

Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown was coached by Zook at the University of Illinois and now looks to take his game to the pro level.

Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown at the NFL Combine. Photo by Brian Carriveau of

INDIANAPOLIS––Jonathan Brown is the only player from the University of Illinois at this week's NFL Combine, and thus the only Ron Zook recruit at the NFL Combine.

Brown is busy preparing for the start of his own career in professional football, but took a moment during his media availability to talk about his former college coach and the new Packers assistant.

"Coach Zook, he was a great coach," said Brown. "We were fortunate to have a lot of great assistants around too, so he really stepped back and let his assistants coach. But he really helped me kind of get an overall sight of the game, not just at the college level but on the NFL level. He spoke to some positive things in my life, and so far they're coming to fruition."

Brown was part of Zook's 2010 recruiting class at Illinois, where Zook coached from from 2005 to 2011.

In seven years at Illinois Zook guided the Illini to a berth in the Rose Bowl in 2007, but otherwise compiled a disappointing 34-51 record.

Since being fired, Zook worked for two years as a studio analyst for CBS Sports, but decided to get back into coaching in 2014, being hired by Mike McCarthy, his former colleague on the staff of the New Orleans Saints in 2000 and 2001.

With Zook back in the ranks of the NFL, Brown perhaps has a connection and an advocate that could help to get him drafted.

"I definitely think Coach Zook knows my talent," said Brown. "He knows what I can do, so I'm excited to see him and get around him and talk to him."

With 45.5 career tackles for a loss, Brown ranks third in school history, which is impressive considering this is a program that has produced Hall of Fame linebackers like Dick Butkus and the Packers' own Ray Nitschke. During his senior season, Brown made 199 tackles, 15 for a loss and was one of the few bright spots on an bad team team, earning second team All-Big Ten honors by the media.

Brown is not a highly-rated prospect but has a chance to be a mid- to late-round draft choice in the NFL. Playing primarily outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, Brown would look to slide inside in a 3-4 system. But that might suit him just fine.

Some of the players Brown tries to emulate are inside linebackers.

"Danny Trevathan for the Broncos, I really think we have a similar skill set," said Brown. "I like the way he plays the game. Patrick Willis, I think he's a guy I can really model my game after."

Good thing for Brown, he also has experience playing special teams, the unit that Zook now coaches with the Packers. At Illinois, Brown played on the punt and kickoff return team.

As a someone who doesn't figure to be highly drafted, sometimes special teams can be the be the difference between being selected and not being taken at all.

Who knows, maybe Brown will be reunited with Zook. If he does, there's plenty Brown thinks he can offer going beyond just special teams.

"The way I diagnose plays and the speed at which I play at, it allows me to play in the offensive backfield a lot," said Brown. "I make a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. And I think it contributes to me flowing to the ball as well. I flow to the ball with a relentless motor, and I think that's something a lot of guys don't possess."

Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].

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Comments (2)

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SOL's picture

February 23, 2014 at 01:26 pm

Brian Brian Brian you mentioned Uof IL LB program with Butkus but left out #66 as a linebacker out of IL tsk tsk

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Brian Carriveau's picture

February 24, 2014 at 03:23 pm

Better? ;)

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