Playing college football in the midst of a global pandemic is not an easy task by any means.
The Big Ten implemented a conference-only schedule and mandated testing policies that Illinois plans to exceed — the Illini expect to have testing everyday for their players.
“I feel safer here than at home, to be honest,” linebacker Jake Hansen said.
Hansen, a senior, is preparing for his final year in orange and blue and pleased with the way Illinois has handled football during a pandemic as the Illini officially began training camp Thursday.
“I feel plenty safe.”
Illinois has been practicing and working out as safe as possible for months now. From wearing masks and social distancing to separating offense and defense on the practice fields. Head coach Lovie Smith mentioned both the protocols put in place as well as the harsh realities of trying to function while battling the contagious coronavirus.
“No system is foolproof, it’s still by compliance a little bit and you know for us and our players, if you were at practice today you would see all of us in masks,” Smith said Thursday. “At least one form of masks. With our players, shields on their helmets. We’re practicing social distancing as much as you possibly can. These first two days are non-padded practices so it’s a little bit different. We don’t have all of the answers right now but each day we learn a bit more.”
While some of Hansen’s teammates, including Jake Cerny and Ra’Von Bonner, have elected to opt-out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, the senior made no such choice.
When asked if he had any reservations about returning to play this season, he kept his answer brief.
As far as on the field, Hansen missed the final four games last season due to an injury. The Florida native told the media via a zoom call on Thursday that he has been a “all go” since Jan. 1 in terms of health.
The linebacker is expected to do big things for the Illini, with Hansen coming off a season where he had 72 tackles, 3.5 sacks, an interception and led the nation with seven forced fumbles. He enters this season on the watch list for the Bednarik Award (best defensive player), Butkus Award (best linebacker) and the Bronko Nagurski Award (best defensive player).
Hansen also begins this season with a new position.
With last year’s middle linebacker Dele Harding, who led the Big Ten in tackles and made the All-Big Ten First Team, graduating, Lovie Smith had a hole in his defense to fill, and he officially announced Thursday that Hansen will be filling it.
Hansen spent time taking MIKE reps even last year, and mentioned that although it has not been officially announced he had been aware of the change.
“I knew for a while, but being the MIKE linebacker means a little bit more,” Hansen said. “You’re making all the calls, making all the checks everybody’s relying on you the whole time so it’s a big step and I’m excited to take that step and fill that role.”
But regardless of the position, Hansen is just excited to be back on the field, and is looking forward to taking on a national title contender in Ohio State on Thursday night of opening weekend on Sept. 3.
“I’m really excited for it, it definitely means a lot.”