CHAMPAIGN — During the last two months, Bret Bielema’s linebacker room provided the biggest question mark for his first Illinois football defense.
That changed Monday morning with a single social media post.
Starting linebacker Jake Hansen is returning to the Illini for a sixth season of college football, he announced through the team’s Twitter account, after declaring for the NFL draft this past December.
“The 2020 football season wasn’t exactly how I imagined my time at Illinois to end,” Hansen said in a video clip. “After extensive talks with Coach Bielema and the University of Illinois staff, I’ve decided that I have unfinished business in the orange and blue. I’m excited to get back up to Champaign and get to work with my teammates and my new coaches.”
Hansen rejoins a linebacker group that will miss fellow starter Milo Eifler, another NFL draft departure, but returns key contributors like Tarique Barnes, Khalan Tolson and Shammond Cooper. North Carolina State transfer Calvin Hart Jr. also is joining the Illini ahead of the 2021 season.
Hansen is the second Illini upperclassman to reverse course after announcing a departure from the program this offseason. Defensive end Owen Carney Jr. said in December he would enter the transfer portal before announcing in January he would return to Illinois.
Those two and other returning Illinois seniors have been afforded an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am excited for Jake to come back to the Fighting Illini family,” Bielema said in a statement. “During my conversations with Jake, it was easy to see how passionate he is about the game of football, his teammates and the University of Illinois.”
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Hansen received All-Big Ten second-team and third-team status — from conference media and coaches, respectively — for his 2020 efforts. Those included team bests in tackles (68), tackles for loss (10), interceptions (two) and forced fumbles (two) to go with 21/2 sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Hansen has played in 41 games as an Illini, including 30 starts, since 2016. He shares third place in program history with 10 forced fumbles and generated the most takeaways of any player nationally over the last two years with 14. Hansen’s career statistics include 235 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 10 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and three interceptions.
Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @clikasNG.