A year after injuring his knee, Hansen ready to make impression for Illini football

A year after injuring his knee, Hansen ready to make impression for Illini football

URBANA — Yes, linebacker is an important position at Illinois. Don't believe it? Check out the school's career tackles list.

The top seven players are all linebackers, led by College Football Hall of Famer Dana Howard, who had a ridiculous 595 tackles with the Illini in the early 1990s.

Unless they change the way tackles are counted, Howard's record is safe, well, forever.

The Illini tackles chart includes stars John Sullivan, Darrick Brownlow, John Holecek and J Leman. The ninth guy on the list — Dick Butkus — is considered the best to ever play the position.

Jake Hansen understands the Illinois linebacker legacy. And hopes to add to it.

"The tradition was definitely a big part in why I wanted to come here," Hansen said. "Of course, the education as well."

He played in 2016, starting one game and recording eight tackles.

Hansen was all set to start in 2017.

But on Aug. 19, he suffered a torn knee ligament and was lost for the season.

"I tried to think about it in the best way possible," Hansen said. "I tried to get better mentally, (and) get to know the game better."

After surgery to repair the knee and extensive rehab work, Hansen is back and getting ready. Without limitations.

"I'm fully cleared," Hansen said. "Everything's a go for this season. Man, I'm just excited."

Season-ending injuries force athletes to clear both physical and mental hurdles.

"You get past them every day," Hansen said. "I feel good. I'm pretty confident in myself."

Sitting out and watching the Illini's 2-10 season in 2017 was difficult for the Tarpon Springs, Fla., native. He wanted to help on the field and couldn't.

"It was tough," Hansen said, "but we had a lot of great guys that were able to step up like Del'Shawn Phillips and Dele Harding and a bunch of other young guys."

Helping hands

Of course, his family helped in his recovery. So did the Illinois football coaches and support staff: strength coaches, trainers and medical personnel.

"A lot of people can't understand the ACL process if you don't go through it," Hansen said, "Different times, there's ups and downs, so you've got to take them and go with it every day."

Teammates Mikey Dudek and Dre Brown know the feeling, missing two seasons each with torn ACLs.

Dudek returned in 2017 after consecutive years on the sidelines. Recently, he ran a 40-yard dash time that defies his painful past.

"It gives you confidence when you see a guy like Mike being able to come back from it twice," Hansen said. "Once shouldn't be a problem then, right?"

Work in progress

The Illinois coaches have big plans for Hansen, who is set to start next to buddy Phillips in the middle of the defense.

"I'm really excited to get back," Hansen said. "I think we can be really good."

Phillips missed Hansen on the field in 2017.

"Any time a guy gets injured, it's a setback for the team," Phillips said. "It's hard knowing your brother fought hard to be out there with you, but he can't. It was definitely a blow."

Hansen originally signed with Bill Cubit in 2016. Soon, the former staff was fired and replaced by Lovie Smith. And Smith hired longtime pro Hardy Nickerson as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.

"At first, I didn't know what to think," Hansen said. "They're great guys, great people and obviously great coaches."

Working with Nickerson is "humbling," Hansen said.

"He played at that high level," Hansen said. "To be coached by him is a blessing."

Nickerson likes what he has seen from Hansen in early workouts.

"Jake has looked really, really good so far," Nickerson said. "He's got the quickness. The speed is there. His change of direction is there. He hasn't missed a step in my opinion."

Nickerson said he knew during the spring that Hansen would be ready.

"He was poised to have a great year last year," Nickerson said. "To lose him right before the first game of the season, that was pretty devastating. I'm excited to get into the season and see what he's going to do. His work ethic has been unbelievable."