CHAMPAIGN — With the Big Ten Network Football Tour bus making its way to the University of Illinois' practice Tuesday, linebacker Jake Hansen watched from the sideline as their cameras rolled.
It’s a position Hansen will be in for quite some time.
Illini coach Lovie Smith confirmed the worst: Hansen, a sophomore from Tarpon Springs, Fla., who had been slated to start at Sam (strong side) linebacker, will undergo season-ending surgery for a knee injury Smith called “significant.”
Hansen injured his knee during Saturday’s scrimmage. He appeared in all 12 games last season, mainly on special teams, but did get one start at linebacker and had impressed coaches with his heady play this spring and during training camp.
“It’s unfortunate because he was having an outstanding year,” Smith said. “It’s always disappointing when it happens to a guy who has played the way Jake has. He’s going to be an outstanding football player. We’re just going to postpone that a little bit. Eventually he will help the University of Illinois win a lot of games.”
With Hansen out, junior college transfer Del’Shawn Phillips has moved into Hansen’s spot and Julian Jones takes over at the Will (weakside) linebacker spot.
Jones got four starts last season. His strength is his speed, which allows him to give sideline-to-sideline pursuit. He said he’s ready to take over a starting spot.
“All of our linebackers study all three positions so it’s not a big adjustment when you have to move or fill in,” said Jones, whose father, Adrian Jones, played defensive back for Missouri from 1986-89 and is the Tigers’ career interception leader with 16.
So why didn’t Jones follow in his father’s footsteps and attend Missouri?
“It just wasn’t my destiny,” said Jones, who was recruited by the Tim Beckman coaching staff but who was overjoyed when he found out after two coaching changes he’d be taught defense by Smith and coordinator Hardy Nickerson.
“Oh, yeah, especially being a linebacker because coach Smith is a linebacker guru and coach Nickerson played the position for him and we all know his history on the field.”
Nickerson played 16 seasons in the NFL and made five trips to the Pro Bowl.
Jones said he has learned this month that Illinois has a much greater understanding of this defense than it did one year ago.
“We’re still a young team but we have some guys with experience now, especially in the linebacker room. We have the second leading tackler on last year’s team (middle linebacker Tre Watson) and three or four of us made starts last season. I feel like we have some maturity and leadership at our position.
“I feel like last year we focused so much on trying to not mess up and this year I feel like we can focus on doing our job and making plays. This should be a breakout year for a couple of our guys.”
The Big Ten Network’s football crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and former Illini running back Howard Griffith broadcast live from the edge of the training camp field Tuesday, the 13th stop on their whirlwind bus tour of all Big Ten training camps. They’ll be at Northwestern Wednesday to complete the circuit.