Illini’s Worst Kept Secret: Jake Hansen Is The New Middle Linebacker

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Maybe the worst kept secret in the Illinois football program was where Jake Hansen would be lining up for the upcoming 2020 season.

The senior linebacker will be in the middle of the action as he and his head coach, Lovie Smith, confirmed following the first day of preseason practice that he’ll be the Illini’s middle linebacker. In Smith’s defensive scheme, the middle linebacker does practically everything imaginable pre-snap and throughout the course of a play. In his coaching career in the NFL, Smith has had middle linebackers like Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher. At Illinois the middle linebacker position has historical significance with names like Dick Butkus, Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy. In the upcoming season 2020, Hansen will be in charge of blitz and coverage audibles at the line of scrimmage, identifying the offensive scheme and play and making sure the rest of his 10 teammates are lined up properly.

"Jake is just an excellent football player (and) he gets it," Smith said Thursday via a Zoom conference from his office inside the Smith Family Football Center. "He makes adjustments with it. It’s a natural transition for him to be the Mike linebacker for us this year. He knows the defense.”

Smith confirmed the Illinois starting linebackers will be Hansen in the middle but Khalan Tolson, who replaced Hansen last season when he missed the final four games due to injury, will be the strong-side linebacker and returning starter Milo Eifler will be on the weak-side in 2020.

Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen participating in the first preseason practice on Aug. 6 for the 2020 season. Hansen, who is a Butkus Award watch list nominee, will be moving to the middle linebacker spot for his senior year.Mike Glasgow/University of Illinois athletics department

Hansen said via a Zoom media conference Thursday that he knew for a few months, during the staff’s offseason Zoom meetings they’ve been able to conduct with players, he’d be moving to the middle linebacker and is embracing the responsibility.

“It obviously means a little bit more. You’re making all the calls, making all the checks, everyone is relying on you the whole time," Hansen said. "It’s a big step and (I'm) excited to take that step and fill that role."

And oh yeah, Hansen will likely need to be involved in an occasional tackle as well - something he’s excelled at the past two seasons. Hansen was one of 51 players named to the watch list for the Butkus Award award given to college football’s best linebacker and named after arguably the greatest Illini defensive player.

Hansen was a third-team selection by Athlon’s after the 2019 Butkus Award semifinalist had 72 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, one interception, seven forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries despite missing four games due to injury.

At one point last season, Hansen led the nation with seven forced fumbles and ranked second in the country with three fumble recoveries. He is the No. 11 graded linebacker in the nation by Pro Football Focus (81.1) and No. 6 in Power-5. 

Hansen had one of his best games in Orange & Blue during the Illini's 24-23 upset over No. 6 Wisconsin that sparked Illinois' current three-game winning streak. He was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after two forced fumbles against the Badgers led Illinois to one of the biggest upsets in Big Ten Conference history.

Smith, who is taking over the defensive play-caller duties for the second consecutive year said repeatedly Thursday he couldn’t be more confident having an NFL prospect like Hansen in the middle of his 4-3 scheme.

“He is like a coach on the football field. Once you get to your last year, we've gone though an awful lot,” Smith said. “On a personal note, I just love the guy. It’s as simple as that. I can’t hide my feelings. What he stands for, what you get from him daily, I know what he’s doing on and off the field (and) it’s just been a blessing to have a chance to coach a guy like that."