Martez Wilson is a tremendous athlete who is becoming an outstanding football player. He had the size and speed to be a five-star athlete out of high school, but he had minimal technique training. Plus, the middle linebacker had not played that position before.
When it appeared he was ready to put his talent to good use prior to last season, he suffered a herniated disc in his neck during the first game and sat out the year. Surgery repaired the disc problem, but there was a lingering fear of more permanent damage to a sensitive area. He felt good entering fall drills, but he didn't trust his neck on the field.
"The Missouri game was that confidence-building game in my neck," Wilson explains. "That was the same game I injured myself last year, the same field. I stood on the same exact spot. I had a flashback.
"I'd say I didn't play 100% because I had thoughts go through my head. But after that game, I felt no pain in my neck or symptoms. I told myself I'm gonna trust myself. My neck is back to 100% good, so I'm gonna play like it."
From that point on, Wilson has shown steady improvement. He had to play pass defense most of the Missouri game, which further limited his aggressiveness. But he has improved to the point he was the team's leading tackler in the Ohio State and Penn State games and drew compliments all around.
Illinois coach Ron Zook agrees that Wilson needed time to gain confidence in his neck, but there is another factor as well.
"That and being away from football. You don't just go right back and start playing. It takes time."
Hard work is beginning to pay off for Wilson. He knows the defense inside and out, and he improves the more experience he gets. Zook appreciates his dedication to football.
"What I love about him is that he's really working hard. I brought up J Leman to him a few weeks ago. I said, `Why do you think J Leman was such a good football player?' Not only was he a gifted football player, but J put the work in. That's how the conversation started.
"He said, `You see me watching more tape, right? I am going to be like J.' I said, `You keep doing the things that J did and you will be like J.'"
The 6'-4", 250 pounder is strong and fast, a "freak" of nature as some have described. But he also needed an internal strength that only experience and maturation could provide.
"As the season goes along, I'm getting mentally stronger. When I'm out there, I just feel like I have to make the play. I trust my defensive teammates, and they trust me. I feel like if I do my job and defeat my opponent, either I'm gonna make the play or one of my teammates is gonna make the play."
Wilson is excited about the new defense installed by defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, and his teaching methods.
"It's great. Not only does he push us in practice, but he tells us he appreciates us and loves us as players. For a coach to say that, it makes you want to play for him even harder. It makes you want to appreciate the work you do as far as studying the game plan he comes up with.
"His philosophy period. He makes us want to work on fundamentals in practice. Eyes, feet and hands is the main things we need to practice on other than running and tackling.
"Defensively, we thought we were going to be way better than we were in the past. I asked every player on defense if they liked the new defense, and they all bought into it. They love the new scheme and like the coaches' intensity. I felt like we were going to be a great defense."
However, he was shocked when he saw the Illini offense struggle on Saturdays. That was completely unexpected.
"We definitely didn't see this coming. We were working hard in practice, and they were just gashing us. I thought they had an All-Star offense. We had to adjust to their offense. This is something we don't usually do.
"We were definitely expecting the team to be a high-powered offense coming in. At least 21 points every game. But it's still early in the season. Hopefully the offense will tune in and adjust."
The former Chicago Simeon star believes all the Pursuit Drills Koenning put the defense through during spring and fall practices have taught them how to gang tackle. That is one key to defensive improvement.
"It helped a lot. Everybody can see it as well. We run to the ball. After the first person gets a hold of someone, you see a swarm of guys coming. Just from going through those drills, you have muscle memory. We know how important it is to attack the ball."
It also helped that Koenning forced them to do up-downs after practice, one for each mistake made by defensive players that day. No one liked the strenuous workout after a full practice, but it forced them to focus on every play.
"Yes. The less mistakes we made, the less up-downs we did. We were more focused on not making mistakes because we didn't want to do no more up-downs. That plays a role in our season. We don't want anyone to score on us because it would be due to careless mistakes."
Wilson has been rumored interested in foregoing his senior season for the pro ranks if he proves worthy this season. Will he be here next year?
"That's a question I'm not answering right now. I'm just taking one game at a time, trying to give everything I've got on every play. I really want to go to a bowl game. That's the main thing I want to do. I want to win a bowl game, and I want to win the rest of my Big 10 games. I'm quite sure the team wants to do the same thing as well."
Zook wants his defensive leader to play his best this year before considering other options. But he agrees Wilson is in an upward cycle.
"He is settling in and playing the way we all think he can play. I think he will get better and better. As he gets comfortable, more and more he flies around."