Few have been more maligned on the Illini defense than highly touted Illini recruit Martez Wilson. From his lack of a mark on the field to his off-field exploits, he’s had a tough go of it in Champaign.
However, much like they should be, his experiences have only gone to make him stronger, again, both on and off the field. He missed pretty much all of 2009 due to injury, but one good piece of news coming from the Zook Big Ten Media Day press conference, was the health of middle linebacker Martez Wilson.
“He had a great, great spring. He had a great camp. He was playing as well as any Mike linebacker I’ve been around probably anywhere,” Zook said. “In fact, actually he went through spring, he didn’t go through the contact. It was hard to keep him out of it because he was always trying to stick his face where he shouldn’t stick it. Just got his final checkup last week, and got 100 percent clean bill of health and ready to go.”
Wilson’s health means that the defense will automatically be more athletic and dangerous than they were last season.
By Paul Schmidt
Much of Wilson’s growth stems from the now-infamous stabbing incident in December 2008, when he was out at a local bar called Fubar with one of his former teammates – Eastern Illinois standout running back D’Angelo McCray – and two of McCray’s friends from Eastern.
A fight had broken out involving McCray’s friends, and he and McCray went to go help when McCray was hit in the head with a bottle. That was when Wilson, just trying to help his friends and teammates, intervened, and went to the ground.
He didn’t even realize that he had been stabbed until he got to the hospital and went into surgery.
Wilson is completely forthcoming about the incident, which most know the details of now, but he still doesn’t know one part of the story.
“I really don’t know what happened there, or what really started it, actually,” Wilson said.
“I am more aware of everyone everybody when I go out now, for sure. If I do decide to drink, for one, I make sure that I have someone who doesn’t drink with me, and I don’t drink as much any more, either,” Wilson said. “I also have people with me so we can always look around our surroundings to make sure we’re ok. I don’t go out as much as I used to…maybe every once in a while, but not near as much as back then, my freshman and sophomore years.”
With that responsibility of being a leader and a scholarship holder on the football field does come a price, and it comes in sacrificing a little of the typical college experience that we all are familiar with.
“It doesn’t really hold me back, but at the same time I play more of a responsibility role, like coaches don’t tell me not to go out, they just tell me to be smart about it,” Wilson explained. “You know, they say you don’t need to fight, and they’re right, there’s no point to it. It’s not worth it, and I can’t afford to be putting myself back in that situation again.”
That type of maturity is something the Illini will be counting on this fall from Wilson, as he tries to fill the shoes left by J Leman three years ago and Britt Miller two seasons ago.
As for the challenge of moving from the outside to the inside, Zook also doesn’t believe that will be a problem for Martez.
“We’ve done it with J, and we’ve done it with Britt, and I just think that with the offenses that we see, you’re going to see a lot of spread offenses and that middle guy is to have to be able to run, and be able to move,” Zook said. “They’ll empty the backfield, and you’re going to have to have a guy that can run. But on the same token, the only thing about Martez now is that he’s benching 405, he’s pulling 328 from the floor, he can hold his own against anybody in the middle.”
Wilson agrees that the one thing he has really had to change in coming to a Big Ten school from the Chicago Public League is his strength.
“I would say that I’ve had to get more physical than then,” Wilson said. “I’ve always had the speed, but I would say I’m more physical now, that I’m more of a hitter. I’m trying to be more of a hitter, and filling the gaps and just learning how to play the game of football better.”
That learning curve is hopefully near completion or at it’s apex, because Zook, the coaching staff and the rest of the Illini defense really are counting on big things from Wilson and plan on having the defense revolve around him.
“The last two, actually the last three years, our Mike linebacker has led the Big Ten in tackles,” Zook said prior to the start of the 2009 season. “I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s not doing a good job if he doesn’t lead the Big Ten in tackles, but he’s a guy that a lot of things revolve around him, with our calls and so forth, and it’s going to be important that he has the kind of year that we think he can.”
For his part, Wilson seems up to the task.
“Coming in as the middle assignment linebacker I feel confident, I feel great about our defense,” Wilson said with a smile. “I’m looking forward to camp, the first game against Missouri. I’m ready, and I’m focused.”Follow paulmbanks