Return of star LB Jake Hansen gives Illini defense a boost
Jake Hansen isn’t the first Illini athlete in recent years to use the phrase “unfinished business” when announcing his plans to return to Illinois for another season.
Ayo Dosunmu – Illinois star junior guard – proclaimed he had “unfinished business” before removing his name from the NBA Draft before his sophomore year.
On Monday, Jake Hansen officially withdrew his name from the NFL Draft after the NCAA granted a waiver for him to return to Illinois for a sixth season of eligibility.
“The 2020 football season wasn’t exactly how I imagine my time at Illinois to end,” Hansen said in a video message. “After extensive talks with Coach Bielema and the University of Illinois staff, I have decided that I have unfinished business in the Orange and Blue. I am excited to get back to up to Champaign and get to work with my teammates and my new coaches.”
“I am excited for Jake to come back to the Fighting Illini family,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said in a statement. “During my conversations with Jake, it was easy to see how passionate he is about the game of football, his teammates and the University of Illinois. We’ve got an outstanding group of seniors that have chosen to come back to Illinois and I am appreciative of Josh Whitman and our staff’s efforts to make sure these young men have the opportunity to wear the Orange and Blue again in 2021.”
After Illinois’ 56-21 loss to Penn State in the final week of the 2020 regular season Hansen took some time but decided to declare for the NFL Draft. Conversations with Bielema about returning to Illinois began in late January or early February, and the NCAA recently granted Hansen’s waiver request.
Hansen said one of the reasons that he decided to enter the NFL Draft in December was because he was hesitant about building a new relationship with Bielema. Hansen spoke frequently about how great his relationship was with the previous Illini head coach Lovie Smith.
Bielema never stopped recruiting Hansen though, and in late January, early February Hansen – and the Illinois compliance department – began the process of applying for an NCAA waiver.
“He had a really good vision,” Hansen said. “It’s one thing to say something. It was great to hear what he had to say. Everything asked all the players that were still Illinois, backed what he was saying. When they vouched for what he was saying, it made me want to get on board as well.”
Hansen is the 21st “super senior” to return to Bielema under the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility granted, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 21 players are the most of any team in the country, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Hansen is the most accomplished Illini to return on the defensive side of the football. He has 14 combined takeaways in the last two seasons, which is the most of any player in the country. His 10 forced fumbles rank third in Illini history behind Simeon Rice (13) and Whitney Mercilus (11).
“Part of me doesn’t care a whole lot what people think [about me],” Hansen said. “There is a small part of me that wants leave a good legacy at the University of Illinois and know that I did everything I could for the university.”
Illinois rich history of linebacker play includes Hansen, but he still feels has more to accomplish in his sixth season with Illinois.
“I think the hopes and goals never change,” Hansen said. “Every year you want to win a Big Ten Championship and beat your rival, beat Northwestern. Have an All-American season personally. That sort of thing and do something that I haven’t been able to do at Illinois yet.”
One thing Hansen hasn’t done at Illinois is play outside of a 4-3 defensive scheme. Bielema and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters don’t plan to run a similar scheme. Bielema plans to run a 3-4 scheme and potentially a 3-3-5.
“I really like that about him, and the things he said about his defense and his offense, as well, is putting guys in a position that they are best suited for and trying to minimize weakness,” Hansen said.
During his time in the NFL Draft, Hansen became educated on the process, but with the NFL not allowing on-field workouts his dream of performing in front of NFL teams at the combine – which he got an invite to – wasn’t really possible in 2021.
“There was no chance for me to show myself workout in front of everyone,” Hansen said. “Not being able to do that was a factor in that as well.”
The sixth-year senior now rejoins a linebacker room that was ripped by injuries last season. Both Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes suffered season-ending injuries and aren’t expected to be ready for spring football. Shammond Cooper also could miss spring football after he too had a season-ending injury. The Illini did add NC State transfer CJ Heart, who could potentially be a starter.
“I think right before we had some tough season-ending injuries at backer, Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson were really starting to play some good ball,” Hansen said. “We have those guys and new guys coming in to help out. I’m excited about the direction we are headed as far as the linebacker core. I’m hoping I can lead those guys and they will take me back with open arms.”
Hansen doesn’t know when he is getting back to Champaign – he moved out of his Green Street apartment – he is still figuring out his plans to move back. When he does move back, he will join Tank Wright’s strength and conditioning program, which is another reason he decided to return to Illinois.
“I think a lot of the players love Coach Tank and what he has to offer and what he is bringing to the table,” Hansen said.
Hansen’s unfinished business starts soon, and his leadership is going to be key in Bielema’s first year with the Illini. He has the ability to elevate the Illini defense in ways few other can. The work to getting Illini football to get to the level that Bielema wants.