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You’re Nuts: Who is the best returning non-OSU LB in the Big Ten?

Which linebackers should you be on the lookout for in 2021?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Who is the best returning non-OSU LB in the Big Ten?

Josh’s Take: Jake Hansen, MLB — Illinois

I am a sucker for underrated, scrappy linebackers. I’m an even bigger fan when that linebacker makes impactful, game-changing plays — rather than making a living five yards behind the line of scrimmage and racking up meaningless tackles that set up a 2nd-and-3. Since we love the Buckeyes, I am not going to mention names, but yes, this is a thinly veiled shot at a recent middle linebacker. If rumors out there are true, that same MLB was recently punched in practice by another former Buckeye and current teammate. That is likely due to years of frustration and disappointment.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I want to make a case that Jake Hansen of Illinois is the best non-OSU linebacker in the Big Ten. You could probably take “non-OSU” out of the equation altogether, but this is Gene and I’s lane! It should be pointed out that Hansen developed under Lovie Smith, and might suck now that the team is being coached by Bret Bielema. However, his steady performance over the last three seasons would tell us otherwise.

Hansen is returning for another season with the Illini after flirting with the NFL draft following the 2020 campaign. He has been a rock-solid presence in the middle of the team’s defense, and I would argue that he has been amongst the Big Ten’s most underrated players for a few years now. He was a Butkus Award semifinalist in 2019, and there is a chance he takes home the award named for a fellow Illinois linebacker after 2021.

The lightly recruited Hansen (two or three-star at best, depending on scouting service) joined Illinois all the way back in 2016! He was viewed as being on the small side for his position (6-foot-1, 215), and is not the fastest linebacker in the world. He has packed on 20 pounds, and what he lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with awareness and playmaking ability. After appearing in 12 games a freshman, he received a medical redshirt in 2017. Named the starting middle linebacker in 2018, he has done nothing but produce since. Hansen led the team in tackles in both 2018 and 2020, but his impact goes well beyond total tackles.

Hansen is a turnover and tackle-for-loss machine from the middle linebacker position. Despite playing only nine games in 2019 and eight in 2020, he was involved in 14 takeaways — the most of any player in the nation during that span. In those two seasons, he forced eight fumbles, recovered three forced by others, and had three interceptions. He simply has a nose for the ball. Hansen is not your “boring” middle linebacker, known for keeping players in front of him but never making them retreat or lose yardage. Instead, he actively looks for turnovers.

When not trying to take the ball away from opposing offenses, Hansen is great at making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Over the last three seasons, he has 26 TFLs, including seven sacks. His sack total is nothing special, but the TFL total is impressive for a middle linebacker who does not blitz a ton. He has accumulated those 26 TFLs in just 29 career starts. So Hansen has basically averaged a tackle for loss in every game as a starter, and nearly forced a turnover per game over the last two seasons.

The anchor of the Illinois defense is about at steady and consistent as they come. On top of the impactful turnovers and ability to stop plays behind the line, Hansen does not miss tackles. PFF gave him a 90.8 tackling grade in 2020, good for third in the country — among all defensive positions. They also loved his play in 2019, as he was the 17th highest-graded linebacker that season. PFF loves Jake Hansen, Illinois loves Jake Hansen, and I love Jake Hansen for the sake of this argument.

Gene, here comes the mic drop. Soak it in. Hansen is the only current FBS player with 200 career tackles, 25 TFL, and 10 forced fumbles. He is one of only six FBS players with those same totals, plus three or more interceptions, since 2000. Hansen will likely continue to fly under the radar because his team just isn’t any good, but that should not detract from his play on the field. Give me Jake Hansen in the middle of my defense, and I would be happy.

Gene’s Take: Micah McFadden, LB — Indiana

I’ll tell ya what. Doing my prep work for this piece I've realized just how good some of the linebacker talent is across the Big Ten. I guess that’s what happens when a conference is built upon the power run game, at least until recently. It makes it even more frustrating to see what Ohio State was putting out there at middle linebacker these last few seasons, as Josh alluded to. Thankfully, the Buckeyes will have a bunch of new faces out there this year, and fewer linebackers on the field at once in the new 4-2-5 scheme to help better defend against the pass. Still, there is plenty of quality linebackers in the B1G outside of Columbus.

Jake Hansen is a fantastic choice, and he would likely be talked about as one of the best overall defensive players in the conference if he played at literally any other school besides Illinois or maybe Rutgers, although the Scarlet Knights are on the upswing. For my pick, I’m gonna go a little more mainstream and take the heart and sole of perhaps the best defense in the Big Ten: Indiana’s Micah McFadden.

Now, while I don't think the Hoosiers have the most talented defense in the conference, as from a pure recruiting standpoint that crown obviously goes to Ohio State, I do think they are far and away the best coached and most well-schemed group in the Midwest — at least they were under Kane Wommack, who left at the end of the 2020 season for the head coaching job at South Alabama. However, in order for a defense to thrive under good coaching, you need a smart, talented middle linebacker that can help guide his unit and act as a sort of coach on the field. That is exactly what Indiana has in McFadden.

Like Hansen, McFadden was not a highly-touted recruit by any means. A three-star prospect, the Tampa, FL native was the No. 139 OLB and the No. 1986 player overall in the 2018 class. He received just six offers during the recruiting process, with Indiana and Boston College the two standouts alongside UMass, South Dakota, Southern Miss and Toledo. The Hoosiers were the first to offer, and following an unofficial visit in July of 2017, McFadden made his commitment. That choice was clearly the correct one.

Since then, McFadden has been an absolute force on the Indiana defense. After playing in all 12 games as a freshman and recording 20 tackles, he started 12 games as a sophomore and led the team with 60 total tackles while also registering team-highs with 9.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions. He was named an honorable mention All-Big Ten and IU’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts, but the accolades would only continue to grow from there.

Even in a pandemic-shortened season in 2020, McFadden managed to ball out. He again led the team with a whopping 59 total tackles through only eight games, and also was the team leader with 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks with another pair of interceptions. Indiana’s defense ranked 20th in the nation in opponent points per game, and McFadden was a big reason why that unit thrived. The team captain was named an AP Third-Team all-American, made the first-team All-Big Ten, and was honored as Indiana’s Anthony Thompson Most Valuable Player.

Named to the 2021 Butkus Award Watch List, Chuck Bednarik Award Watch List and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List, big things are expected from the senior in the upcoming campaign. What’s most impressive about McFadden is that he has done some of his best work against the highest-quality opponents. He registered a game-high 11 tackles in Indiana’s upset victory over Penn State last season, and had a game-high 10 solo tackles against Ohio State in the Hoosiers’ near-comeback. When the lights shine the brightest, McFadden steps up to the plate.

McFadden truly does it all on defense, and he is a player I'm sure Al Washington would love to have in his own position group. He is adept in both pass protection and run-stopping, consistently leading the team in tackles while also finishing atop the B1G in sacks in 2020 with some picks and pass breakups thrown into the mix. Ohio State will have to contend with he and the rest of that Hoosier defense when they make the trip to Bloomington in October, and like Josh’s choice Jake Hansen, is a player that does not even need the ‘non-OSU’ stipulation to be considered one of the best in the Big Ten.