Martez Wilson took awhile to showcase his 5-star talent, but better late than never. After two years where he did not live up to lofty expectations plus a year of inactivity, Wilson finally showed his true colors by being named All-Big 10. He is grateful for the honor.
"I feel great. That's a great accomplishment. It lets me know I was doing something this year that allowed me to get recognized by others. Being away from football a year and coming back to make All-Big 10, I'm grateful for the opportunity."
Wilson played with the Illini in the 2008 Rose Bowl as a freshman and wanted desperately to get back to another bowl while still on the team. The Texas Bowl fulfills that dream.
"It's satisfying by itself. It's just exciting to go to a bowl period. We had two losing seasons in a row. My goal was to go to a bowl game my junior year. Coming back off an injury, I think it's great. It worked out for the best."
Of course, Wilson and his teammates had lofty expectations after the Illini got off to a 5-3 start. Visions of a January 1 bowl danced in their heads, but ending the season 1-3 ended those hopes.
"Yeah, very disappointing. We all wish we could have ended better, 9-3, but we fell short. You can't do nothing about it. But we're proud to be bowl eligible, to represent the Big 10 in a bowl game."
Wilson created a number of personal goals for the season. He didn't get as many sacks as he wanted, but he accomplished most of them.
"I created those to challenge myself. I didn't get the numbers (sacks) I wanted for myself, but it is a privilege to get sacks period. I made a lot of key plays throughout the season."
The Illini defense started off strong but struggled in midseason. There was a loss of confidence, but Wilson believes that was a temporary problem. As a team leader, he will work hard to help his teammates regain their edge.
"Yeah, we should be able to get that back. As a defensive leader, that's one of my jobs. Making sure everyone's confidence is high, making sure everyone is on the right page, being focused. I'm gonna get up and stay up, and I'm gonna try to get my teammates to get on the same page I'm on."
The 6'-4", 250 pounder likes the idea of playing in Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Titans, but the thought doesn't overwhelm him.
"It's fun, but at the same time it's just another stadium. I'm excited. We played at an NFL stadium earlier this year against Mizzou, and we did that the last 4 years. So we're pretty familiar with it."
Wilson is aware of the challenges posed by Baylor, a quality 7-5 team.
"They've got a nice running quarterback, and they've got a lot of speed. We're gonna really have to buckle down, be disciplined and get ready to run around for all four quarters, 60 minutes."
The Illini star has matured nicely in his four years at Illinois. He expected to play in four bowl games, but that was not to be. He wishes to share his more expansive understanding with his younger teammates so they won't look to the future without appreciating the present.
"I'll tell them to enjoy the moment. You could have a losing season and never get to enjoy it again. It's a privilege to be in that situation. Remember it because you may never be in similar circumstances again."
Illinois coach Ron Zook speaks highly of his senior leader.
"Martez has had an awfully good year. This was really his first year. He was recruited very highly out of high school. He's had a good college career, but he never hit his potential like we all felt like he was going to. Last year he would have had he been able to play.
"This year he's come on and done the things we all felt like he was gonna do when we recruited him. He's had a great year. Not only is he playing extremely well, but he's been a great leader for us. He's a guy that when he steps into the huddle, everybody's gonna listen."