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CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach Bret Bielema was disheartened with the news on Wednesday that longtime linebacker Jake Hansen will miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery on Tuesday.

Especially after Hansen’s contributions during the Lovie Smith era, and in his return for one final college season under Bielema. The first-year Illini coach understood the significance of what Hansen’s injury means to his team.

“Obviously, the news with Jake Hansen coming out (Wednesday), injuries are a part of the game unfortunately,” Bielema said during his coaches show appearance on Wednesday night. “Seems like we’re getting our steady dose of them a little bit more than we would like. Now arguably, probably our two better linebackers, or two of the guys going into the season that we felt good about, CJ Hart and Jake Hansen, to lose those guys for the season is a tough swallow.”

Hansen’s third season-ending injury ends a wildly successful career with the Illini. Despite missing games each season, the two-time All-Big Ten honoree is currently the NCAA leader in forced fumbles among active players (12), and ranks third all-time in forced fumbles in program history.

A three-time Illini captain, Hansen will finish his career with 276 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, seven fumble recoveries and three interceptions in six seasons. He came to Illinois as a part of the Class of 2016, ranked by 247Sports as the No. 1,999 prospect.

Bielema shared how he and Hansen built trust right away, even though he declared for the NFL draft in December.

But on March 1, Hansen and the Illini announced he would be back for another year after obtaining an eligibility waiver from the NCAA.

“The thing I appreciate about Jake, right when I first got here, him and (former Illini) Nate Hobbs (were) both two guys I was both talking to quite a bit about staying and helping us build this thing as it goes forward,” Bielema said. “Obviously, both of them opted to go into the draft, and I just felt that there was something hanging out there with Jake.”

As Hansen went through the draft process, Bielema kept in touch, and eventually Hansen decided he wanted to return to Champaign and successfully received the NCAA’s approval.

“His whole story has been overcoming a lot of adversity, from a couple different injuries, to last year winning an NCAA appeal to get back on the roster,” Bielema said. “To have it end the way it has is unfortunate, but I know this: What we’ve learned about Jake Hansen, he’s going to make the most of it.”

The Tarpon Springs, Florida native racked up 32 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in five games this fall.

Another Illini veteran, Tony Adams, recalled Hansen’s stellar 2018 and 2019 seasons after rehabilitating from a torn ACL he sustained in training camp in 2017.

“He came back and had this crazy season, and from there, he blew up,” Adams said. “He’s one of the greatest I’ve seen put on the pads. He’ll be forever missed. I love him forever.”

Bielema expects to rely on sophomore Tarique Barnes, who is second on the team with 42 tackles, and juniors Khalan Tolson (29 tackles) and Alec McEachern (six tackles). He added that freshmen Dylan Rosiek and Kenenna Odeluga could see snaps when Illinois (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten) hits the road to take on No. 7 Penn State (5-1, 2-1) at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa.

The Illini do have some good news on the injury front, though, and it’s at the quarterback position.

Bielema shared that Brandon Peters has returned to practice after leaving the Wisconsin game with an undisclosed injury on Oct. 9.

“BP continues to get better every day,” Bielema said. “Throwing the ball really well. He got a full recovery and has been able to clear himself, good to go.”

That doesn’t mean Bielema is committing to Peters as the starter again.

Art Sitkowski has continued to get reps at the position, and Bielema even spoke positively of Northern Michigan transfer Ryan Johnson, who has yet to appear for Illinois.

“Obviously, Art (Sitkowski) worked during the bye week, as well as all the reps this week,” Bielema said. “Also, it’s been fun to see RJ, Ryan Johnson, continue to make progress and do some things. All three of those guys have put in good practice reps, and we’ll see where we go.”

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