CHAMPAIGN — Jake Hansen is inching toward history.
Illinois' captain linebacker recorded two forced fumbles during last week's 42-14 loss at Virginia, moving into second place all-time in program history with 12 forced fumbles. He needs one more to tie former Illini star Simeon Rice, a College Football Hall of Fame candidate, as the all-time leader.
Hansen's performance against the Cavaliers marked the third time in his college career that he's had two forced fumbles in the same game.
The first one came on a third-quarter tackle Hansen made on Virginia wide receiver Demick Starling, sending the ball out of bounds. The second one was during a fourth-quarter pileup. Cavaliers tailback Wayne Taulapapa was fighting for extra yards on a short run and as he went to the ground, he actually fell on top of a few other players, allowing Hansen to rip the ball away from him and recover it before the play was blown dead.
"I think the first one he caused on Saturday, he actually hit him so hard the ball just flew out of bounds," first-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema said Monday. " ... Usually when you're going 100 miles an hour, going full speed, things like that can happen. But he does have a little knack (for getting the ball out). You'll see certain players, especially in the NFL, just give a punch on the ball or swipe on the ball or know to come over it rather than come under it. He's got a lot of those innate qualities that are really easy to see."
Hansen, a sixth-year senior, eclipsed former Illini standout and unanimous First-Team All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who is in his 10th season with the Houston Texans. Mercilus now ranks third in Illinois history with 11 forced fumbles in his college career, highlighted by nine during his final campaign in 2011.
Hansen has the most forced fumbles of any active FBS player. He also ranks third in the Big Ten for the most forced fumbles since 2000, trailing former Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan and former Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, who had 14 and a conference-record 15, respectively.
Bielema coached Borland from 2009-12 when he was the Badgers head coach and sees a lot of similarities between him and Hansen.
"When you were around Chris, he just naturally found the ball all the time. It didn't matter if it was the run game, pass game," Bielema said. "A lot of times people would just be standing there and he'd just go whack the ball out. As soon as I got here, when I put the film on, I literally said to myself when I saw Jake make play after play on the ball, 'This is exactly what I saw with Chris.'"
Home run hitter
Deuce Spann has emerged as Illinois' home run hitter. Of course, he doesn't play baseball for the university, but the redshirt freshman has basically provided the football equivalent of home runs through the first three games of the year.
Spann, who switched from quarterback to receiver at the beginning of the season, has three catches for 109 yards this year with nearly all three going for scores.
He had a 45-yard, over-the-shoulder reception in the team's season-opening home win over Nebraska for his first college catch, coming up just inches short of the end zone. He followed that up with a wide open 31-yard touchdown grab against UTSA, his first college TD, and then had a 31-yard scoring reception between two defenders last week at Virginia.
"My first catch against Nebraska, it was like a great moment because it was really my first time ever making a college play, a big play," Spann said Tuesday. "So it really felt exciting to make that play.
“The first touchdown that I scored, (receivers coach George McDonald) told me, ‘This play is gonna be open in a game,’ so I just did my assignment. it was open, so I just scored. And then on (the Virginia touchdown), I had to make a play, so I just made a play.”
Spann said he's learned a lot from fellow redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams, who also moved from quarterback to receiver. Williams made the switch in the spring, giving him more time than Spann to develop at the position, and he's already become the team's No. 1 target. Williams leads the team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (183), but he's not surprised that Spann is tied with tight end Daniel Barker for the team high in receiving touchdowns (two).
After all, the Illini nicknamed Spann "Big Play Deuce" for a reason.
"It ain't too many guys who are 6-4, 200 pounds, running a 4.3 (40-yard dash). The last (time) I seen that was Randy Moss," Williams said Tuesday. "So seeing somebody like Deuce with his unique talent just showing the world what he can do, it's special. He got a unique talent that not too many people have."