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Had it not been for a torn ACL in game six of his senior season, former Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen just might have concluded his collegiate career on top of Big Ten football’s list for forced fumbles.

The native of Tarpon Springs, Fla., who celebrates his 24th birthday on Sunday, was on a pace to not only leave Illinois as the school’s all-time leader in that category, but he also was just three away from tying the all-time Big Ten record.

With 12 forced fumbles to his credit, Hansen needed to jar only one more ball loose from an opponent’s grasp to tie Hall of Famer Simeon Rice for the all-time Illini mark.

However, an unfortunate physical setback last year against Wisconsin wiped out all of those very realistic statistical objectives.

Among all-time Illini, Hansen was in celebrated defensive company, having notched one more forced takeaway than future NFL star Whitney Mercilus (11) and two more than former teammate Stanley Green (10).

Former coach Bill Cubit’s staff first noticed Hansen’s potential at Florida’s East Lake High School, though Hansen had already pledged his future to Iowa State. When a Cyclone coaching change took place and Lovie Smith assumed duties as the Illini head coach, the course began to shift for both Jake and his dad, former BYU star Shad Hansen.

“When you’re a defensive player — especially a linebacker — there’s no better person to play for than Lovie,” the elder Hansen remembered. “From Jake’s perspective, it was like hitting the lottery.”

Illinois’ No. 35 saw action in every game that freshman season (2016), but his spirit was deflated the following August when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp.

“I’m not a very patient person,” Jake Hansen said, “so I had to wait for my time. It gave me a chance to see the game from a different perspective.”

Months and months of therapy got Hansen back on the field for the 2018 season opener against Kent State, and he responded with an eye-popping effort, totaling a school-record-tying six tackles for loss among his 15 stops. At the season-ending banquet, Hansen was presented with the Bruce Capel Award for courage, dedication and accomplishment.

In 2019, Hansen earned All-Big Ten honorable mention from both the coaches and the media, despite missing the final four games with an injury. In the COVID-19 season of 2020, he continued to elevate his play, leading the nation in forced fumbles (seven) and graduating to second-team All-Big Ten.

Figuring that his draft status was at its peak, Hansen announced plans to leave the college ranks and begin training for a spot in the NFL. A conversation with new Illini head coach Bret Bielema convinced to return to Illinois for a sixth season in 2022.

Unfortunately, in game six against Wisconsin, Hansen tore his ACL, prematurely ending his collegiate career. He continued his classwork and graduated last December with a master’s degree in recreation, sport and tourism.

New Houston Texans coach Smith never stopped being a huge Hansen fan, signing his former star to an NFL free agent contract last April. Next month, with hopes of making the Texans’ 53-man roster, Hansen will compete for playing time at inside linebacker with multi-year NFL veterans Christian Kirksey and Tae Davis, and fellow rookie Christian Harris.

Big Ten career leaders in forced fumbles

1. 15 — Chris Borland

  • , Wisconsin, 2009-13 (40 games, .375 per game)

2. 14 — Ryan Kerrigan

  • , Purdue, 2007-10 (44 games, .318 per game)

T3. 13 — Simeon Rice

  • , Illinois, 1992-95 (46 games, .283 per game)

T3. 13 — Bob Sanders

  • , Iowa, 2000-03 (45 games, .289 per game)

T3. 13 — Marcus Oliver

  • , Indiana, 2013-16 (39 games, .333 per game)

T6. 12 — Jake Hansen

  • , Illinois, 2016, 2018-21 (46 games, 0.261 per game)

T6. 12 — James Looney

  • , Purdue, 1977-80 (statistical data not available)

T7. 11 — Whitney Mercilus

  • , Illinois, 2009-11 (37 games, .297 per game)

T7. 11 — Paddy Fisher

  • , Northwestern, 2017-2020 (48 games, .229 per game)

T9. 10 — Julian Peterson

  • , Michigan State, 1998-99 (23 games, .435 per game)

T9. 10 — LaMarr Woodley

  • , Michigan, 2003-06 (23 games, .435 per game

T9. 10 — Jonal Saint-Dic

  • , Michigan State, 2005-07 (24 games, .417 per game)

T9. 10 — Stanley Green

  • , Illinois, 2016-19 (40 games, .250 per game)

Illini birthdays:

Sunday: Rashard Mendenhall, football (35)

Monday: Tim McCarthy, football (73)

Tuesday: Randy Crews, basketball/baseball (74)

Wednesday: Oluwole Betiku, football (25)

Thursday: Keion Battle, football (20)

Friday: Julia Cili, soccer (20)

Saturday: Summer Garrison, soccer (21)

By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter @IlliniLegends and @Spartifacts2022. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.

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