Svetina returns for Illini after foot injury


Illinois’ Mike Svetina looks to tackle Purdue’s Ralph Bolden during the game at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 17, 2012.

For two seasons, Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim patrolled the middle of the Illinois defense.

Numbers 43 and 34 complimented each other on the field at the linebacker position by immediately starting in their freshman season and growing out matching long hair.

Svetina is back this season after a fracture in his foot forced the junior to redshirt last season.

When the injury was announced on Aug. 7, the estimated recovery time for Svetina was set at eight to 10 weeks. Foot injuries are notorious for lingering past the set recovery date — just ask Kevin Durant — and the Illini decided to save a year of eligibility and redshirt Svetina.

“I think the coaching staff’s mentality was to not rush it and since I played my first two years, it’d be a good time to redshirt,” Svetina said. “I think it was a really good decision, this is the best I’ve felt and I feel ready to go.”

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Now back to 100 percent this spring, the Illini defense is cautiously optimistic with its blend of experience and depth. Svetina made 16 starts in his first two seasons, Monheim has been a starter nearly his whole career, with 35 career starts, and T.J. Neal started all 13 games of 2014.

“The goal with the coaches is they want guys to stay fresh,” Neal said. “With our depth, you can put guys in and there’s not a drop off.”

The silver lining of those years without depth is now the Illini’s linebacking corps is flushed with experience looking to make a leap from the 109th-ranked total defense a year ago. The Illini allowed more than 30 points in 10 of 13 games last season.

“Some people got thrown in their freshman year, but now everyone has a lot of plays under their belt,” Svetina said. “You don’t have to worry if someone goes down.”

The Illini will need to replace three starters off last year’s defense, one at their hybrid position, the STAR. A strong-side defender, the STAR needs to be physical enough to act as a linebacker but mobile enough to move on the field side with coverage.

While Svetina played STAR as a sophomore, making 11 starts, he’s moved back to his natural position of inside linebacker this year. Eric Finney and Daniel Crawford project to start at the hybrid position.

“I feel a lot more comfortable (inside) and I feel like I have the ability to make a lot more plays from that position,” Svetina said. “I prefer inside. The STAR, they have great depth out there with Finney and Crawford, definitely a lot more speed out there than I have. They’ll hold it down.”

Beckman’s hands were tied in 2013 with defensive personnel: The head coach was forced to fill the void at STAR with Svetina. The primary preference would have been Thomas III at STAR he eventually started there in 2014, but the Illini lacked depth at safety and needed Thomas in the secondary.

Now Illinois at least has the depth to put athletes in the proper position.

“It’s night and day in what we’ve had before,” Beckman said. “I really feel like the kids have matured.”

While Svetina’s long hair is gone — he cut nine inches off and donated it to a clinic for cancer — the junior cannot wait to get back on the field.

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