CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Jake Hansen thought last year was it. The Illinois senior linebacker announced he was going pro, but in March had a change of heart.
“It took a lot for me to want to come back,” Hansen said. “I’m putting everything into it. It’s something that I can’t wait for.”
Hansen had to get a waiver to become eligible after declaring for the NFL Draft. He returns as the no doubt leader in an Illini defense under new management, but already has the respect of his coaches.
“When he walks out to the field he’s got presence to him,” Illinois linebackers coach Andy Buh said. “You can tell people relax around him. He sets the tone without talking. We’re really lucky to have him back.”
Hansen is a Preseason All-American who has 29 career starts under his belt. The Florida native has battled injuries throughout his time in Champaign, missing the entire 2017 with a season-ending knee injury in training camp. He also missed the final four games of the 2019 season with a back injury but through it all, still leads the nation in takeaways with 14 since 2019.
A new defensive scheme under first year coordinator Ryan Walters means a different look for Hansen and the linebackers, but it’s a deep group with North Carolina State transfer Calvin Hart Jr. working primarily alongside Hansen in camp, with returners Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes in the mix on the interior as well. Both guys are working back from season ending injuries last year.
“There’s a lot of guys that can play and you can see that,” Hansen said. “A lot of guys have played here and are looking to play next year as well. It’s really competitive, all taking a bunch of snaps.”
“I think this is unprecedented, having this many seniors on the football team,” added Buh. “Gosh, that’s really the thing all of us in college football want. We want available bodies. Good available bodies and we will feel like we have that.”
“Oh we deep,” Barnes said. “It’s a lot of experience in the room, it’s a lot of great players. It’s definitely a competition and that’s going to make us a lot better.”
Hansen knows the defense’s success starts with him this year and as a sixth year player, it’s on him to lead not only the linebackers but the entire defense, as they look to take another step forward. The Illini ranked second to last in the league last year in points allowed per game at 34.9.
“No one’s focused on the past,” said Hansen. “That was a big thing for us in the past, we kept looking back instead of looking forward. That’s something that’s a good change for us.”
With another productive season, Hansen has the chance to write his name in the top of the Illini record book. With four more forced fumbles, he’ll rank first in program history in that category, passing all-time greats Simeon Rice and Whitney Mercilus.