CHAMPAIGN — Last September Jake Hansen rested at home, less than a week after having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee.
About 30 minutes away at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the Illinois football team was suffering its first loss of the season to the University of South Florida.
Hansen, a sophomore linebacker for the Illini from Tarpon Springs, Fla., spent time yelling at the TV, then calming himself down.
He was so close to the game, but so far away.
“It was so close to me but I wasn’t there," Hansen said. "It was weird to see it on TV and have it be like 30 minutes up the road."
When the Illini take the field at 11 a.m. Saturday against Kent State, Hansen is expected to slot in at linebacker. It's been 21 months since Hansen played in his last game with the Illini — a loss to Northwestern on Nov. 26, 2016.
“Last year, losing him a week before the season started was a huge downer for us," defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "He’s healthy and ready to go. He’s going to provide that leadership that we need and he’s excited about getting to the season."
Hansen tore his ACL late in camp last season, on Aug. 19, during a scrimmage after he was slated to be a starting linebacker for the team.
He was on the sidelines for the first two weeks against Ball State and Western Kentucky before flying to Florida the Sunday after the Western Kentucky game.
His spirits were low.
“It was pretty tough," Hansen said. "I didn’t take it well at first, but I tried to look at it as a learning experience. At the end of the day, you can’t really do anything once it happens. I tried to look forward, look to the future and look towards Kent State.
“I was real upset for a few days. There are hard days throughout the whole process, but the first week was pretty tough for me. Once you start feeling yourself come back it gets a lot easier."
As a freshman Hansen played in all 12 games, primarily on special teams with one start at linebacker.
After the injury he started playing the "what if" game. What if he had done something differently? Would it have cost him his sophomore season?
But things shaped up. Hansen got advice from players like Mike Dudek and Dre Brown, each of whom suffered back-to-back torn ACLs.
Hansen started taking reps as scout team quarterback during walk-throughs to stay involved.
He stopped short of calling himself a coach, but if any linebacker needed to pick Hansen's brain, he allowed it.
“That’s the only way you could stay involved is to try to prepare like you’re going to play," Hansen said. "I tried to help Del’Shawn and all the other backers prepare the best that I could."
During the rehabilitation process, Hansen learned about the game.
He took in football from a different angle, watching how offenses attacked the defense.
Hansen has already been in Nickerson's office ahead of the season opener, picking the coordinator's brain.
“I try to drill everything down that I’m a little uncertain about," Hansen said. "I want to be as prepared as I possibly can to make my first real debut — back from surgery. I want to be as prepared as possible and be able to help the team anyway I can."
Nickerson and head coach Lovie Smith have a prototype they want at the linebacker spot.
Hansen perfectly fits that mold.
“We think he’s a playmaker and he’s a student of the game," Smith said. "He’s athletic, smart and all that stuff. He fits the profile of what we look for at the linebacker position.
“He’s waited a long time. We’ve had players who have fought through adversity. To see what a guy like Mike Dudek has done, or Dre Brown, it helps a guy like Jake. He went to work. It was disappointing when he went down with the injury, but he’s healthy now. We’re excited about these next three years playing for us."
Nickerson has seen Hansen's burning desire to take the field.
It's been a long 21 months.
“There's no pent up anger, I’m just anxious to get back after it," Hansen said. "It’s been a while since I played in a game and I want to do that again."