CHAMPAIGN — Jake Hansen missed the final four games of the 2019 Illinois football season with a back injury.
That meant the 6-foot-1, 225-pound redshirt junior linebacker was sidelined for the Illini’s come-from-behind road win at Michigan State that secured bowl eligibility. Then he missed losses to Iowa and Northwestern. And the Illini’s Redbox Bowl appearance.
Four-plus months with no football.
Illinois’ spring practices were going to change that. Hansen might not have been a full participant, but he was ready to get back on the field.
The Illini were scheduled to start its spring practice schedule Monday. Hansen was instead back home in Florida, with his teammates scattered across the state and country, as all Illinois athletics — from active seasons to organized team activities — were canceled in wake of the global health threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mentally, it’s tough because you don’t get to play ball with ... guys you worked so hard with,” said Hansen, who made 72 and forced seven fumbles tackles last season. “To not be able to play football, right before we were about to start, it’s a little frustrating.”
Hansen understands why football has taken a back seat, though. It’s just he was feeling as good as he had in months leading up to the start of spring ball. He spent the last four months getting his body right so he’d be able to participate — even if not fully — when Illinois got back on the field.
“I was going to be limited,” Hansen said. “Probably a little bit less contact. I feel really healthy, and my body is getting right. For me, it was going to be a little bit less spring ball, so it wasn’t something that’s going to impact me individually as much. As a team, it’s obviously going to impact us.”
Hansen’s process to get back to feeling healthy again meant listening to his body. Doing the right exercises. Seeing and listening to the right doctors.
“It’s a lot of rest and being smart and staying away from things that would bother me,” Hansen said. “Just being smart with my body and taking care of myself. Obviously, your body is your business in this game. That’s the thing you need to worry about the most.”
Hansen wasn’t the only Illini heading into spring practice off an injury to end the 2019 season. The list of players unavailable by the Redbox Bowl against California was lengthy.
At that point, defensive backs Marquez Beason, Dylan Wyatt and James Knight, running back Mike Epstein and wide receivers Trevon Sidney, Ricky Smalling and Edwin Carter had been previously announced as out for the season. Hansen was among seven players, including fellow linebacker Dawson DeGroot, wide receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe, Jordan Holmes and Caleb Reams, defensive back Tony Adams and offensive lineman Doug Kramer, that were ruled out ahead of the loss to the Golden Bears.
“I will say we weren’t the healthiest going into spring ball,” Hansen said. “It’s going to help us a lot just getting everyone healthy for the season. There’s pros and cons if you look at both.”
Kramer, who suffered a leg injury in Illinois’ regular season finale against Northwestern, was likely closer to being a full participant in spring ball than Hansen. The three-year starting center was aware, though, that the coaching staff might have held him out of some spring activities.
“We kind of had a plan going into it,” Kramer said. “I was going to do as much as I could and try to work in full 100 percent. We were planning on doing as much as I could do. Obviously, we aren’t going to figure out what that was.”
Kramer said he put his return to full health in the hands of head athletic trainer Jeremy Busch, strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez and their respective staffs. He was ready for spring ball.
“Honestly, I felt really good going into this spring ball,” Kramer said. “Just before all this stuff started happening before spring break, I was cutting and doing a lot of change of direction stuff. I was feeling really healthy and feeling good and excited to get back for spring ball and playing football again.
“Obviously, kind of a weird time. I haven’t been doing much. Just hanging out and working out when I can and where I can. Just trying to find a way to get it done.
“The biggest message has been keep hope and stay locked in on what we were focused on what we needed to do during spring ball. Keep in mind that while you’re away, you can still get a lot done. You can improve in different ways than you would have when you were here, but you can definitely improve your game.”