CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Early last November, Illinois was playing its best football in years, fresh off a 38-10 win against Rutgers, which gave the Illini a 5-4 record on the season.
The defense was finally living up to its potential after being scrutinized many times for the playmaking-decisions head coach Lovie Smith was making.
Along with those strides as a team, junior linebacker Jake Hansen was named one of 12 semifinalists for the Dick Butkus Award.
“It’s a huge honor and trying to keep the linebacker U thing going,” Hansen said back on Nov. 4th. ”Me and Dele have had long talks about this kinda stuff and it was just a matter of time before it was coming up.”
The linebacker missed the remaining four games on the schedule due to a season-ending injury.
Since then, Hansen has been recovering and is doing well from what he’s told media members.
“It’s the best that I’ve felt in a pretty long time,” Hansen said this past Monday. “I feel really healthy.”
But how do we know he will be ready for the 2020 season? This isn’t the first time Hansen has experienced the recovery process from a season-ending injury. He was in this same position his sophomore year after being sidelined during fall camp with a knee injury.
It’s also important to remember that when he recovered, he notched a school record-tying six tackles for loss among 15 stops and a Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week nod in an opening week performance against Kent State.
If that’s any indication, Hansen is due for another productive year.
While the injury was a brief topic of conversation, the elephant in the room was of course, how Hansen and the Illini have been impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
He touched on how health and staying in shape was important for the team at this time.
“Your body is your business in this game,” Hansen said.
Staying on top of workouts is key for everyone to not get behind physically before fall camp (hopefully) starts up come August.
“In reality, I think most of us can get to a field or at least get outside and just go for a jog in the neighborhood at the very least,” Hansen said.
This Illini team fortunately, doesn’t have to go through the pain of having its regular-season cut short, but their spring season has been put on hold. Hansen admitted that he wasn’t going to be heavily involved in spring ball so while not having this time to practice doesn’t hurt him a ton, it does have a greater impact on the younger guys.
“It hurts a little bit for sure because a lot of guys need some development,” Hansen said.
What does this mean for freshmen and sophomores? They’re going to be missing out on the slower process of improving over time, learning how to work with their teammates, coaches, and more.
“They’re going to speed up the process come fall camp and really, maybe get the more mental aspect of [the] playbook,” Hansen said.
Overall, it’s going to be a quicker learning process for everyone come the fall. While we’re looking ahead, Hansen may have hinted at the potential of him moving from outside linebacker to middle linebacker.
“I think that’s insider information for now,” he said, leaving everyone on the teleconference hanging.
But regardless of where Hansen plays on the field this coming season, he is still hopeful for the team.
“I think we know that we can play with just about anyone in the country just based off some of the things we did last year,” Hansen said in reference to beating Wisconsin, Michigan State, Purdue, going to a bowl game and the team’s growth. You all remember, right?