Martez Wilson came to Illinois two years ago labeled a can't-miss prospect. He is tall, physically strong and fast as the wind. But he had no real background for what he needed to succeed in major college football.
He played as a freshman backup weakside linebacker. He started there his sophomore year, although he was inconsistent at best. However, three things have conspired to change his outlook and effort for the 2009 season.
First of all, the negative reactions from the general public and media for not being a team savior have motivated him to work harder. In addition, Illini coaches moved him to middle linebacker. That position requires more responsibility and leadership, helping him to grow up. And a severe injury last winter changed his whole outlook on life.
Wilson interceded on behalf of a teammate who was being beaten severely by a group of thugs. In the process, one of the offenders knifed him in the stomach. He now wears an ugly, lengthy scar down the length of his abdomen, a permanent reminder of how he almost lost his life.
He was called a hero by some. The humble Wilson says he was just helping a friend, something he feels anyone might do. Regardless, he now has a new-found appreciation for his life and opportunities. He is dedicated to transforming his game into the best it can be.
"I've got a lot to prove because I want to have a better season than I had last year," Wilson states. "I've got a lot to prove to be a middle linebacker, to show people that I've got the ability to be one of the best in the country."
He is more relaxed than last year. And he feels less pressure as well.
"I feel there was more pressure on me last year because it was my first time to start. That team was really expecting me to do great and looking up to me like they had high expectations of me.
"This year, I feel like they kind of eased off me a little bit. They know this is my junior year. They know I have to do well on the field this year, and everyone is just waiting and watching."
One of the responsibilities of a quality football player is film study. Wilson is much more dedicated in the film room as well.
"I looked at what they did with different defenses when Brit (Miller) was the middle linebacker. I try to learn their techniques at the same time as mine and try to have a mixture of both. And it's coming along good. I've really learned a lot from film from last year to this year."
The 6'-4" freakish athlete runs an amazing 4.4 forty yard dash. With consistent hard work in the weight room, he has continued to build his size and strength.
"I'm definitely bigger and stronger than before. When you're with Coach Lou (Hernandez), you don't have a choice. I'm up to 250. As far as lifting, I'm benching 405 +, and I'm in the 300 Power Club.
"It does help my confidence level. Of course, my speed's still up."
The middle linebacker calls the plays for the whole defense. And defensive linemen funnel opponent running plays to him. Wilson now feels mature enough to handle the extra responsibility.
"I feel good about it. Coaches want me to lead, to be the quarterback of the defense. I'm ready for the role. I feel I can really step in and fill the shoes that the coaches ask of me."
As a team leader, Wilson is also chief spokesman for the defensive unit. It is young and inexperienced at spots, but he is confident the defense will measure up.
"I feel our defense will be great, honestly. It's faster this year, we're more athletic this year. We're also physical at the same time. We have a few who are willing to hit and fill the gaps.
"The biggest thing about the defense is we're coming together as one. We are our brothers' keepers. That is our attitude, that we'll be united. You've got to trust your teammates to the right and left of you to do what's asked of you. If one person doesn't do his job, the whole thing breaks down.
"Wait until the first game so we can show the world what we can do."
With his added maturity and knowledge of the defense, Wilson could begin to realize his vast potential. If so, the entire Illinois team will benefit according to head coach Ron Zook.
"I tell you what. He's making calls out there that prove he knows what he's doing. When he knows what he's doing, he's fun to watch."