Unfinished business: Jake Hansen announces return to Illinois football

by Mariah Guzman

On Monday morning Illinois head football coach Bret Bielema left Illinois twitter on edge, tweeting, “Unexpected good news coming…. #famILLy.”

The wait wasn’t long. 16 minutes later Illinois Football’s Twitter announced (with video) that linebacker Jake Hansen would be coming back for another season.

“The 2020 football season wasn’t exactly how I imagine my time at Illinois to end,” said Hansen in the video message. “After extensive talks with Coach Bielema and the University of Illinois staff, I have decided that I have unfinished business in the Orange & Blue. I am excited to get back up to Champaign and get to work with my teammates and my new coaches. Go Illini.”

The All-Big Ten linebacker originally declared for the NFL Draft in December, went on to hire an agent, and moved out of Champaign, but got lucky enough to receive a waiver from the NCAA to return. Hansen will be considered a “super senior” and adds one to the list of already 20 returners who have taken advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report by the Associated Press, the Illini have more returning scholarship super seniors than any other Power-5 team in the nation and five more than any other program in the Big Ten.

“I am excited for Jake to come back to the Fighting Illini family,” Bret 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. We’ve got an outstanding group of seniors that have chosen to come back to Illinois and I am appreciative of Josh Whitman and our staff’s efforts to make sure these young men have the opportunity to wear the Orange and Blue again in 2021.”

In a Zoom conference held Tuesday morning, the Florida native had multiple reasons for deciding to come back, one of the greater being because of his talk with Bielema.

“He just had a really good vision,” said Hansen. “So, I mean, it’s one thing to say something, correct? It was great to hear what he had to say and it’s one thing to say it but then everything I asked all the players who were still at Illinois backed what he was saying. When all of them vouched for what he was saying and they liked all the staff that they brought in, it made me want to get on board as well.”

Other than the promising look of an Illini team under Bielema, Hansen had other reasons to return. The NFL Draft process will look difference because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be no on-field workouts for teams and the NFL scouting combine — that Hansen was invited to — won’t be held in person.

Hansen’s list of accomplishments at Illinois is lengthy. During the past two years, he was on watch lists for the Butkus, Bednarik and Nagurski awards. He received an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2019 and All-Big Ten second team (Media) and third team (Coaches) in 2020. His 10 career forced fumbles are tied for third-most in Illinois football program history, leading the nation in forced fumbles in 2019. He also had 14 takeaways over the last two seasons, the most of any player in the nation.

Despite his successes and the opportunity to go through the NFL Draft process, Hansen still feels like there’s more to accomplish.

“I truly think that I do have some unfinished business at Illinois,” Hansen said. “There are a couple things I never did. I was never a First Team All-Big Ten guy. We never played in a Big Ten championship, were never able to play in a Rose Bowl. Those are things I’ve wanted to do for all five years and wasn’t able to do. After talks with Coach Bielema and thinking it through, that’s something I think is very possible with him. That’s ultimately what was the tipping point for me.”