Wilson poised for breakout year — again

Martez Wilson was one of the last players in the Edward Jones Dome interview room after the Illini’s 37-9 loss to Missouri last September.

Martez Wilson was one of the last players in the Edward Jones Dome interview room after the Illini’s 37-9 loss to Missouri last September.

The starting middle linebacker sat with his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame slightly slouched, though he wasn’t as downbeat as many of his teammates.

“I just have to get in the film room and learn from all of the little mistakes I’ve made to perfect my game,” Wilson said. “We’re going to learn to bounce back from this.”

Beaten but not defeated — that was the mantra of the day for Wilson and many other Illini. After all, the team entered the 2009 season with a brand new attitude, a great receiving corps and Wilson, who was poised for a breakout year at a new position.

Wilson had been a subject of criticism for the past two years after being a top recruit out of Simeon, with controversy over which position he should play — linebacker or defensive end — constantly in the forefront.

But this was the time to show he was more than just a great athlete. Coaches and players alike thought it was time for Wilson to break out.

Wilson didn’t get that chance in ’09, as he found out the next week he’d be sidelined for the season with a herniated disc in his neck, which he suffered during the first quarter against Missouri.

He was forced to sit and watch the Illini trudge through a 3-9 season.

“I suffered the whole year sitting on the sideline, sitting at my home watching the team knowing I could be out there healthy, contributing in some type of way,” Wilson said recently. “Just being on the sideline, and not being able to help in any way, that’s the toughest part.”

After taking a medical redshirt, the junior has been back to taking full contact since late July and is slated to start as the team’s strongside middle linebacker.

In the new defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, Wilson said he’ll blitz more and have more freedom to move.

The scheme is very much based in fluidity. Koenning instituted the “bandit” position, which is a hybrid defensive end and linebacker.

Though Wilson’s athleticism and strength may have been a good fit with the “bandit” position, it will be played primarily by sophomore Michael Buchanan.

“We talked about (having Wilson play the ‘bandit’ position),” linebackers coach Dan Disch said. “The problem for us was, we couldn’t do without him in the middle. We like him at that position, too. We just don’t have two of him.”

Still, Wilson’s position will still have some fluidity, as he and Ian Thomas will have the ability to switch their strong and weakside positions at times.

To Thomas, who started at middle linebacker last season in Wilson’s absence, having Wilson back is about more than what position he’ll play.

“It’s just confidence,” Thomas said. “I’m confident with him next to me. I know he’s going to have my back, coming up and making plays. I know he feels the same way about me.”

Having their middle linebacker back could do wonders for a team that allowed 30.2 points per game last season, ranking last in the Big Ten.

Still, Disch is unsure what to expect from the junior.

“I don’t think you’ll know until he gets out there,” Disch said. “He’s been off for a year. It takes time to get back. He’s had surgery, and it’s his focus to get back to that level and it’s our jobs as coaches to help him get back there and demand that he does the things he can to get back there.”

Wilson doesn’t seem worried.

“I feel very comfortable,” he said. “I’m definitely ready to get on the field. I trust my neck, I trust my surgery.”