Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Breakout candidate: LB Jake Hansen

Injury to Delshawn Phillips providing more opportunity for sophomore linebacker Jake Hansen

Jake Hansen re-opened his recruitment last winter after Iowa State fired head coach Paul RhoadsSo when Illinois fired head coach Bill Cubit just a month after Hansen signed with Illinois, the Florida native had an oh-no-not-again feeling.

"At first, I got an ESPN update that Cubit had been fired, and I'd been like, 'Aww, geez,'" Hansen said. "Because I was previously committed to Iowa State, and that staff got fired. So my head was spinning."

But like most of his teammates, Hansen's mix of anger and confusion quickly transitioned to excitement when he heard his new coach was former NFL head coach Lovie Smith.

Hansen quickly impressed Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. As a freshman, Hansen was one of the Illini's better special teams contributors and made a start when Tre Watson served a one-half suspension for targeting.

"(The start) was crazy," Hansen said. "My head was spinning, man. But it was a good experience for sure. I think it just helps to help you know what the game speed is actually like and to actually play in a defensive setting in the. Big Ten."

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Hansen -- who finished his first season with 12 games played, eight tackles and one quarterback hurry -- is now settling in as a sophomore. And with junior-college transfer Delshawn Phillips sidelined with an injury for most of the spring, Hansen has made most of another opportunity. He's receiving a majority of the first-team reps at weakside linebacker.

"He's improved quite a bit," said Nickerson, who also coaches the linebackers. "He's had a really good spring. He started out the spring playing SAM. We've moved him to WILL. He's made the transition pretty smooth and seamlessly. He just continues to get better.

"He's an athletic guy, runs really well, very good in space and is a very good tackler. He's a guy that has really, really high upside."

Hansen, who said he must gain some weight to help add physicality against a run-heavy Big Ten West, said he's starting to settle in to the Illini defensive scheme.

"I think I've finally gotten a chance to fully learn the defense and the way it's supposed to be played," Hansen said. "That really helped starting from the basics and working our way up and getting our fundamentals down."

After losing eight seniors with starting experience, Illinois needs young players to fill the void. His second collegiate coaching staff appears to think Hansen could be one.

"I think that everyone has to step up," Hansen said. "Coach Nickerson, one of the things he preaches is just doing your job every play and being focused every play. I think that's a big factor in this defense."

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