After initially deciding to postpone football season until the spring of 2021, the Big Ten Conference reversed course and reinstated an eight-game schedule set to kick off in late October. The Illinois Fighting Illini are coming off a 2019 campaign in which they reached a bowl game for the first time since 2014. As the program looks to build on that momentum in the shortened 2020 campaign, they will feature a combination of returning and incoming talent. Here are three names to keep an eye on when watching Illinois football in 2020.
Jake Hansen, ILB
Jake Hansen is undoubtedly the heart of the Illini defense. The inside linebacker put together an outstanding junior campaign before injuries sidelined him for the final four contests of the 2019 season. Over nine games, Hansen recorded 72 tackles (41 solo, 31 assisted), 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and one interception.
Hansen garnered All-Big Ten Honorable Mention honors from both the coaches and media in addition to being named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award. Ahead of the 2020 season, Hansen has accumulated a list of accolades as well:
- Phil Steele Preseason All-Big Ten second team
- Athlon Preseason All-Big Ten third team
- Bednarik Award watch list
- Butkus Award watch list
- Nagurski Award watch list
The best word to describe Jake Hansen’s style of play is “disruptive.” That descriptor was on full display during the biggest upset of the 2019 college football season. Hansen earned Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording 11 tackles, two forced fumbles, and a sack in Illinois’ 24-23 upset over sixth-ranked Wisconsin on October 19th.
The senior linebacker will need to carry that same mentality into the 2020 season in order for the Illini to fire on all cylinders throughout the shortened eight-game regular season. At peak performance, “Lovie Ball” entails forced turnovers at opportunistic moments to create a short field so the offense can cash in. More often than not, Jake Hansen will be at the center of the havoc.
Perhaps the biggest key to Hansen’s game will be staying healthy. In 2019, the Illini were 5-4 with Hansen in the lineup. Adversely, Illinois put up a 1-3 record with Hansen sidelined to close out the season. While there were a number of factors that contributed to the Illini’s dull late-schedule performance, there’s no doubt that Hansen’s presence in the middle of the field and big-play ability would have given them a much better chance to win those games.
If he manages to stay on the field throughout the 2020 campaign, look for him to be the ringleader of a dangerous Illini defense that can change the complexion of a game at the drop of a dime.
Luke Ford, TE
After having to sit out the 2019 season due to NCAA transfer rules after his hardship waiver request was denied, Luke Ford will finally get to suit up in orange and blue. The Carterville, Illinois native began his collegiate career at Georgia, where he recorded just one catch for four yards and played primarily on special teams over nine games for the Bulldogs in 2018.
Don’t let the aforementioned numbers fool you, however. In 2018, Ford was a consensus four-star recruit, the number one tight end in the nation according to Rivals (number three according to 247Sports and ESPN), and the consensus number one recruit in Illinois. The 6-foot-6, 250 lb tight end is slated to be a focal point of the Fighting Illini offense for seasons to come.
Illinois returns several of their top performers on the offensive side of the ball, including QB Brandon Peters, WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, and TE Daniel Barker. Imatorbhebhe proved last year that he is Peters’ most reliable deep threat. Having that combination intact for a second consecutive season will certainly open up underneath routes, which will only benefit a player like Luke Ford in the passing game. Fellow tight end Daniel Barker possesses more of an outside mismatch-type profile, so Ford’s presence will also be a very welcome sight when it comes to run-blocking. Even if he isn’t lighting up the highlight reel every week, Luke Ford projects to be a key component of the 2020 Fighting Illini offense.
Marquez Beason, DB
Last season, Illinois allowed the seventh-most passing yards in the Big Ten (2,496). While that figure sits in the middle of the pack, the Illini will obviously look to improve in that category this season. A huge piece of that puzzle will be redshirt freshman cornerback Marquez Beason.
Coming out of high school, Beason was dubbed a four-star recruit by 247Sports, Rivals, and ESPN. He was a top-100 recruit on ESPN’s list, 247Sports ranked him as the number four athlete in the nation, and ESPN tabbed him as the number 11 cornerback in the nation. Illini fans were beyond excited to see Beason suit up in the orange and blue in 2019, but a knee injury during training camp ended his season before it even started.
Fast forward to 2020: Beason is finally healthy and ready to contribute to Lovie Smith’s defensive backfield. Given the aforementioned rankings, it’s no secret that Beason has the physical tools to succeed at the collegiate level. While there will likely be some first-year growing pains for Beason, fans should expect to see some jaw-dropping plays from the standout corner as well.
In 2019, the Illini’s inability to effectively defend the pass cost them a game that absolutely should have been won. In week three against Eastern Michigan, Illinois allowed 480 total yards with 316 of them coming through the air. The Illinois offense gave the team a chance to win that game when they tied the score at 31 with 1:44 remaining in the fourth quarter. However, the Illini defense let the Eagles march up the field with ease on the ensuing drive thanks to consecutive completions of nine yards, three yards, 23 yards, and 23 yards yet again. Eastern Michigan then used a few running plays to bleed out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal as time expired.
The bottom line is that an inferior opponent had no fear of the Illini secondary, as evidenced by their passing-to-rushing yards ratio and crunch-time drive success. Perhaps that scenario could have been prevented with a player of Beason’s caliber in the mix to disrupt passes and make the quarterback think twice about his decisions. Time will tell if that’s the kind of impact Beason will be able to make, but his skillset certainly indicates that he can be a difference-maker in the Illinois defensive backfield.
The Fighting Illini will kick off their 2020 campaign in Madison, Wisconsin on Friday, October 23rd at 7 PM central time. While the eight-game schedule presents several tough tests for a program still looking to establish themselves, Lovie Smith’s squad will head into battle with a roster full of promising talent. We’ll find out soon enough if they are able to put it all together and turn some heads across the college football landscape this fall.