Leaving Illinois coach Ron Zook's press conference last Wednesday, this reporter found a smiling young man bounding up to him with a hand of greeting outstretched. It was none other than middle linebacker Martez Wilson, and he was happier than any time in memory.
He had completed his first football practice the day before after sitting out last fall, and he was thrilled to be playing again. While the doctors have not yet cleared him for full contact and has to sit out scrimmages, he nonetheless has a new lease on life.
"Everything's good," Wilson reports. "From my perspective, it's very close to 100%. No symptoms, no pain at all."
When a football player has his first love taken away from him, there is an emptiness hard to describe. Simply donning the uniform can be a great release, as if a heavy weight has been lifted. Wilson feels that.
"I definitely feel more comfortable. Just being out here able to put on shoulder pads and helmet. Before I wasn't able to put on nothing. The trainer didn't want me to put on my helmet because he didn't want to put stress on my neck. Just to be able to do that again felt good."
Zook was impressed that Wilson continued to perform a leadership role last fall even though he couldn't play.
"It just shows I still care even though I was in a terrible situation. I couldn't play, but I could still be there to support my team. It just shows how much I am dedicated to this team as far as us being together as a team.
"Last year during the season, I'd talk to some of the guys as they came off the field. Tell them little things they can change. Like when we're in 35, come up some yards. Be 5 yards back instead of 8. Talking to the linebackers to make sure they plugged the right holes or lead with the right shoulder. Little things to sharpen up their games."
"Definitely Evan Frierson. I talked to Ian some, but Ian is a top player. He wasn't as much a rookie as some people thought. He's a rookie as far as playing experience. I was talking to Frierson more to make sure he got the keys because practice is a lot different from the games."
He hopes to do even more this year.
"I feel like I'm gonna play a huge role. My players and teammates expect so much out of me, as well as the coaches. I feel like I wasn't there last season, and that kind of hurt me. So I feel this year I can step up and show what I can do on the field. Make plays and help rally my team."
Wilson lets his play do his talking.
"I'm more just playing. I pump up on the sidelines, but I'm not really much of the vocal type. I lead by example."
Wilson has some learning to do as the defensive philosophy has changed with the naming of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
"It's different. We have a different defense now, and the keys have changed slightly. I think it's more simple for the linebackers. It allows us to attack faster and be more aggressive."
The ultra athletic Wilson hoped to turn pro after his junior season. He now realizes sitting out was a blessing as he can complete his degree and still turn pro after this year. Of course, that requires him to upgrade his play on the field. If he needs two years to be a pro draft pick, few doubt he will make it there eventually.
However, some still question the value of playing him at middle linebacker. They envision him a defensive end like former Illini Simeon Rice. They think his great speed off the edge would threaten any quarterback. Wilson has heard the talk, but he lets the coaching staff make that determination.
"I hear it. Everybody has their opinion, and you can't disagree with an opinion. They have a right to speak. But at the end of the day I'm gonna play the position Coach feels I need to be playing to help the defense out.
"Sometimes I pay attention to it, sometimes I don't. I just stay where I need to stay and perfect my game."
Wilson is hoping to have contact later this spring. He could probably withstand it, but he is too valuable to risk needlessly. He's needed for the fall season. Still, Zook says it is up to the doctors.
"Right now we'll keep the red jersey. Later on we'll see what the doctors say and maybe we'll take it off. He's shown me he can hit, so I'm not too worried about the contact."