Martez Wilson entered Illinois out of Chicago Simeon High School as a five-star athlete. With the body of Adonis and speed of Mercury, 'Tez was expected to dominate at the college level. Forgotten in the hype was his lack of fundamental training for linebacker, his preferred spot on the football team.
He saw time backing up Antonio Steele at the weakside linebacker position as a raw freshman, but he still had much to learn. Last fall, he was expected to explode on the scene as a full-time starter, but he wasn't ready.
"Last year was difficult for me," Wilson explains. "It was my first year starting in college, so I had a little jitterbug every now and then because I didn't have game experience. But now, I've got that under my belt, so I fly around having fun."
Having fun is the key to allowing his tremendous athleticism to take over. Illinois coaches decided to move him to middle linebacker this spring, and he is beginning to enjoy the new challenge.
"I like it. I'm feeling comfortable at middle linebacker now. I know the plays, I know where I am on the field, I'm running to the ball, just having fun out there.
"I prefer the middle because I feel like I'm one of the vets on defense. A lot of players look up to me. I was one of the returning linebackers that played last year. They moved me into the middle because I'm the most experienced linebacker. I'm comfortable and having fun.
"I'm in the middle, so I get to be the leader of the defense and call the plays. I'm in command out there, so I make the call, the other players listen to me."
One knock on Martez last year was his occasional passivity. Most people assume a 6'-4", 240 pound linebacker with 4.4 speed in the 40 yard dash should knock ball carriers into the ground on every tackle. He is beginning to see the value of that mentality.
"Each day I get more aggressive. I'm watching more film, and playing middle linebacker mentally changed me. My key goals are to get a big hit and get a big interception, make a big play."
The image of middle linebackers being the slobbering, biting, spit-in-your-face monsters is an appealing one for 'Tez, but not enough to get that carried away.
"It is, but with my team I don't want to get into that mentality. Just being a linebacker period, it's easy to put on that dog mentality. We call it a dog mentality, just go out there and be real aggressive. Nobody can hold us back."
He likes how the Illini defense is designed to steer ball carriers into the middle.
"I like that. Our defense is based on the middle linebacker. So the coaches do expect me to be a leader out there. I keep thinking, get to the ball."
He realizes he is repacing All-Big 10 performers in J Leman and Brit Miller, but he believes he is ready to accept that important responsibility.
"It feels good. They were both good leaders and good middle linebackers. I feel it's time for 'Tez to play middle linebacker and step up too."
Pass coverage was difficult for Wilson last year because the WILL linebacker had to play in space against complex pass offenses. He sometimes found himself out of position. He is finding the MIKE position more to his liking, and he is improving his coverage skills.
"I've learned to do that a lot better. Coach (Dan) Disch always says, the main thing to play man coverage, if you keep your eye on the man, you're able to break on the ball faster with the technique they teach us."
Some Illini fans expect him to be Superman and complain when he is merely Clark Kent. Martez feels that pressure.
"Sometimes, but I really don't let that bother me. I just pay attention to what I've got to do."
Accepting criticism is part of the growing process for an athlete, and Wilson has received plenty of that this past year. But he is using the experience to make him stronger.
"It's tough, but that's part of the game. That's part of your mental toughness as a player, and you have to know how to deal with that. You have to overcome that. I've learned to overcome it, and this year I'm gonna show the fans of the Illini Nation my true talent."
Whatever struggles he has endured to now, Martez Wilson has two years to develop. He has all the potential in the world, and it will likely emerge with time. Two years from now, assuming he is healthy and continuing to work hard, Martez might just go down as one of Illinois' greatest linebackers.