Wilson finally living up to potential after issues on and off the field

Today, Martez Wilson is right where many people expected him to be as an anchor of the Illini defense. The junior middle linebacker leads the team in total tackles, tackles for loss and sacks and is tied for the lead in forced fumbles.

However, the path Wilson took to get to this point is certainly not what anyone would have predicted.

Coming out of Simeon High School in Chicago, Wilson was one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the class of 2007. Rated as a five-star player and the 26th best recruit in the nation, Wilson had offers from major programs such as Ohio State, Florida, Notre Dame, USC and Michigan, but instead chose to come to Illinois.

“(When I came to Illinois) I had in mind that our class was going to come in and really contribute and help this team win a Big Ten title or go to a bowl game and just win,” Wilson said.

And during his freshman season, the Illini did just that, racking up wins over three top-25 opponents on their way to a 9-4 overall record, including the memorable upset over then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus. The win helped propel the Illini to a second-place tie in the Big Ten, and the team earned its first Rose Bowl bid since 1984. Despite being suspended for the team’s final regular season game against Northwestern for a violation of team rules, Wilson recorded three solo tackles in the Rose Bowl and was named an honorable mention Freshman All-American by Scout.com after the season.

“He’s a great athlete and a freak of nature physically,” current teammate Trulon Henry said. “Once he really gets this and it clicks, it’s going to be scary.”

However, Wilson failed to live up to the expectations many had for him during his sophomore campaign. After starting the season strong with 52 tackles in his first six games, he struggled in the second half of the season and failed to record more than five tackles in any of the team’s last five games. And as Wilson struggled to live up to expectations, so did the Illini. Despite starting the season ranked No. 19, the Illini quickly fell out of the polls after a 2-2 start and finished the year a disappointing 5-7.

The struggles on the field were just the beginning for Wilson, though, as he encountered issues off the field once again. On Dec. 12, 2008, Wilson was stabbed outside of a campus bar while trying to break up a fight involving former teammate D’Angelo McCray. The wounds required surgery and a stay in the hospital, initially casting doubt on when the linebacker might return to the field.

But after a speedy recovery, Wilson was ready to return with a brand new mindset.

“I had to just learn a lot of good behaviors that I didn’t have about not getting in trouble off the field. Off the field issues definitely played a role in my on-field play,” Wilson said. “Those situations (off the field) just opened my eyes, don’t take my life for granted. I’m blessed to be in this situation I’m in now. A lot of people wish they were in this position, and I was just taking it for granted … After the stabbing, it definitely made me see that this football thing is a beauty.”

With a new appreciation for his opportunity, Wilson came in to the 2009 season ready to prove he was a changed player, both off the field and on it. And after coming out strong with nine tackles in the season opener against Missouri, it looked as if Wilson was going to do just that. However, Wilson left the game with an injury, and it was announced soon after that he would miss the entire season with a herniated disc in his neck.

“It’s tough,” Wilson told The Daily Illini after the injury. “I was planning to do so much this year as far as helping the team on defense. I put in all the hard work in the offseason, and then to come to an injury I can’t do nothing about, it really hurts me and it hurts the team.”

The Illini struggled again as well, compiling a 3-9 record and finishing ninth in the Big Ten. After the season, Wilson was granted a medical hardship waiver, allowing him an extra year of eligibility for the missed season. But despite the difficulties, Wilson said he never regretted his decision to come to Illinois.

“I think every player thinks of ‘What if?’” Wilson said. “I don’t regret my decision because I’m around great people at a great university. When I graduate in May, I’ll be able to say I graduated from the University of Illinois, which is a very prestigious degree to have.”

And while Wilson seemed to have cleaned up his off-field issues, expectations for Wilson as a football player were still guarded. People were beginning to have their doubts about whether the highly sought after recruit would ever turn in to the dominant player many believed he would be coming out of high school. But the redshirt junior entered this season confident, setting lofty goals for any player, let alone one who hadn’t seen the field for nearly a year.

“I wanted to have over 100 tackles, at least a sack a game, two or three forced fumbles, two or three picks, as many tackles for a loss as I can have,” Wilson said. “Those were my personal goals just for myself to accomplish so I could be proud of myself. It was a confidence thing.”

Along with those statistical goals, Wilson was also named to the Butkus Award Watch List for this season, an award given each year to the nation’s top linebacker. And with Illinois being the Alma Mater for the trophy’s namesake, Wilson says the award would have special meaning to him.

“It’s just an exceptional award to have. Butkus went here, and I’d be another great linebacker added to the list of linebackers that went to Illinois,” Wilson said. “It would mean a lot just to me in general. Being off a year last year, not having the best season my sophomore year, just winning that would mean a lot.”

And in order to attain those goals, Wilson has also changed the way in which he approaches the game.

“What I love about him is that he’s really working hard,” head coach Ron Zook said. “I brought up J Leman to him a few weeks ago and I said ‘Why do you think J Leman was such a good football player?’ Not only was he a gifted football player but J put the work in after. That’s how the conversation started. He said ‘You see me watching more tape, right? I am going to be like J.’ I said ‘You keep doing the things that J did and you will be like J.’”

“I feel like I have something to prove,” Wilson said. “I came in and played well as a freshman, didn’t play so good as a sophomore, and injured my junior year. Now, I’m back … I’ve been displaying that I am willing to show everyone that I’m a football player.”

So far this season, Wilson has shown that desire to prove himself. The middle linebacker has at least nine tackles and one tackle for a loss in three of the Illini’s first four games, helping anchor a defense that has allowed just 18 points per game, good for 29th in the country.

“He is settling in and playing the way we all think he can play,” Zook said. “I think he will get better and better. As he gets comfortable, more and more he flies around.”

“The Missouri game (to open this season) was that confidence builder in my neck because that was the same game I injured myself last year, the same field. I stood in the same exact spot I felt my injury last year,” Wilson said. “After that game, I didn’t feel any pain in my neck, no symptoms, nothing like that. I told myself, ‘I’m going to trust what my doctor says.’ My neck is 100 percent clear and good, so I’m going to play like it.”

With each game this season, Wilson shows more and more that he is finally tapping into his nearly unlimited talent. And with such great potential, he admits that sometimes he can’t help but think about the future.

“(The future) always crosses your mind … And I know if I continue playing the way I’m capable of playing and playing with the passion I’m playing with, I will be (in the NFL) someday,” Wilson said. “I don’t make that my main priority. I use every game, one game at a time. If I play every game as hard as I could, then my chances of going to the league will be that much more better.”

But Wilson also said he is still focused on this team and this season. And with injuries and off-field issues a thing of the past at this point, Wilson said he is finally ready to attain the goal that trumps all others.

“Just to go to a bowl game is my personal goal as well as my teammates’,” Wilson said. “Definitely not a bowl game where we have to be 6-6. I want us to win more games than six.”

“I think we shouldn’t lose any more Big Ten games. I think we should just win out from here, that’s my opinion,” Wilson added.