Jake Hansen UI defense

Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen is the unquestioned leader of the Illini defense ahead of the 2020 season. Hansen amassed 72 tackles during the 2019 season.

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Beat writer Bob Asmussen sizes up the Illinois defense ahead of the 2020 season that kicks off Friday night against 16th-ranked Wisconsin in Madison, Wis.

Preseason MVP:

Jake Hansen, linebacker

Last year, he was a Butkus Award semifinalist. This year, he is already on the watch list for the honor, named after the former Illini great.

His move to middle linebacker should enhance both his statistics and the play of the defense. He will be the quarterback of the unit and pile up a high tackle count after he made 72 tackles in 2019.

He has learned well from the Illini coaches, who stress takeaways at every turn. A year ago, despite missing the final four games, he led the nation with seven forced fumbles. That’s a skill that doesn’t go away.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound product of Tarpon Springs, Fla., is the son of former BYU standout Shad, who is the school’s career leader in tackles.

Hansen follows a long line of successful linebackers in C-U, a list that includes Dana Howard, Kevin Hardy, John Holecek, Darrick Brownlow, Danny Clark, J Leman, Mason Monheim and, of course, Butkus.

Mr. Reliable:

Nate Hobbs, cornerback

The native of Louisville, Ky., came in as a freshman in 2017 and, without the benefit of a redshirt season, jumped immediately into the lineup. He earned Big Ten All-Freshman honors.

His junior season was his best at Illinois, with a career-high 67 tackles, and he scored his first touchdown at Illinois on a fumble return against Rutgers last November in Champaign.

Considered one of the top draft prospects on the current team, the 6-foot, 195-pound Hobbs has at least nine more games to show scouts his ability.

Breakout player:

Marquez Beason, cornerback

Many expected the top recruit in the Class of 2019 to get on the field immediately. And that seemed likely until a training camp injury forced him to have surgery and miss the season.

A potential two-way player (he is a talented receiver), the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Beason will likely stick to defense in the near future.

Being able to watch and learn from Hobbs and safety Tony Adams has been a help for the Texan. When Beason signed at Illinois, he was one of the highest-rated players to pick the school in years. His offer sheet included Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oregon.

Illinois has good depth in the secondary, but if Beason shows Big Ten ability, the coaches will get him on the field in a hurry.

Needs to step up:

Isaiah Gay, defensive end

No position on the team got hit harder by graduation and early departures than the defensive line.

The team lost Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson and Oluwole Betiku, who led the team with nine sacks.

Gay started five games in 2019 and finished with a career-best 27 tackles.

With the heavy losses from 2019, he will be asked to do more. He joined the team at the same time as Bobby Roundtree and their skill sets seemed comparable. Roundtree became a standout before his career was cut short by a May 2019 swimming accident that has left him paralyzed.

Gay has a chance to become the best Illini pass rusher this season. If he does, he’ll follow in the footsteps of Roundtree and make his former teammate proud.

Numbers game: 28

That’s how many turnovers Illinois produced in 2019, which led the Big Ten and ranked among the best in the nation.

Not only did the Illini go get the ball, they did something with it. Illinois scored six touchdowns on defense, which tied Appalachian State for the most in the nation.

Another telling number: the Illini defense scored 14 percent of the team’s touchdowns.

They said it

“Everybody likes the big hits and the sacks. But as a defensive player, we want that touchdown. We want a pick six and a sack fumble. We want the turnovers. We want takeaways. They call it Lovie Ball. We all fit that character of wanting to score. It’s our plan to score every time. We all bought into it. If one guy gets one, everybody else wants to get one.”

— Illinois linebacker Delano Ware on the team’s emphasis on takeaways

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).