Hansen, turnovers will lead Illini defense this fall

Senior+Jake+Hansen+takes+a+deep+breath+before+a+play+during+competition.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Jake Hansen takes a deep breath before a play during competition.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Last season, Illinois senior linebacker Jake Hansen experienced a breakout season with 72 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and one interception — and this was in only nine games. Hansen, along with LB Dele Harding and others, helped transform Illinois into one of the most improved defenses in the country. 

But after Hansen finished his season prematurely with an injury after Illinois knocked off Rutgers, the defense took a step back, with turnovers slowing down and the rush defense getting exposed by Northwestern. However, despite missing the final four games, the pundits are expecting big things out of Hansen. For linebackers coach Miles Smith, Hansen is still incredibly underrated.  

“I don’t think he’s getting enough credit going into this season,” Smith said. “I don’t think he’s getting the attention one of the best linebackers in the country should be getting. But eventually, after the games are played, he’ll be talked in the same way (as the best linebackers in the country).”

Regardless, Hansen has been nominated for some pretty prestigious watch lists this season, including the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Butkus Award and the Bednarik Award. For Hansen, staying healthy will be one of his biggest challenges this fall. Before gearing up for his sophomore season in 2017, Hansen sat out the entire season with a knee injury, and this past season he suffered a back injury that kept him off the field and kept the Illini from getting the spark he provided. 

“He’s always been that way literally since he’s been here,” said Smith about Hansen’s ability to energize the defense with turnovers. “When he came here a couple of years ago and hurt his knee, he was the talk of camp before he hurt himself. That’s why it was so deflating. I’ve seen him every possible play, he’s a dynamic linebacker.”

Hansen is projected to make the transition to middle linebacker, sandwiched between senior Milo Eifler and junior Khalan Tolson, setting up one of the most experienced linebacker corps in the conference, but that might not be good enough.

Looking back at last year, despite the vast improvement, cracks were still apparent in Lovie’s defense against Eastern Michigan and Cal, and the run defense was exposed against Northwestern. A big part of what kept the Illini in the games against top-tier competition was the ability to force turnovers. However, as many teams know, including the Bears last season, turnovers are hard to predict and can dry up real quick.

In Illinois’ last three games in 2019, they recorded two turnovers, and they went 0-3. Coach Miles Smith says his father’s system doesn’t rely on luck and turnovers will happen regularly. 

“How we teach takeaways, the priority of every defensive player every play is to score, not make a tackle,” Smith said. “So I think the mindset is what separates us. We are always going to get takeaways because we will be going after the ball every single play, so I don’t think we have to figure out how to win without takeaways. It’s in our DNA.”

Hansen was one of the best players in Smith’s system last year before the back injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. During the Wisconsin game, Hansen anchored the defense with two forced fumbles, keeping the Illini in the game. For his efforts in Lovie Smith’s signature victory at Illinois, Hansen was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. 

In what will be Hansen’s final season in Champaign, he will lead an opportunistic defense with a few question marks. Will Harding’s production be able to be replicated? Who’s going to step up at the defensive line? How will they contain the likes of Rondale Moore, Adrian Martinez or Justin Fields? Regardless of how this season turns out exactly, Miles Smith believes Hansen should be playing on Sunday’s for a career. 

“Absolutely he should be playing in the NFL,” Smith said. “We coached in the NFL, and I was a quality control coach. We know what quality linebackers look like. Jake should 100% be one of those guys. Jake can be a dominant, dominant player.”

Hansen will have a chance to show scouts at the next level what he’s got, starting with Rutgers in nine weeks. 

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