Wilson thrives as Illinois' man in the middle

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- A year ago, Martez Wilson didn't want to be here.

Two weeks of training camp, 24/7 football and living away from campus and the comforts of Champaign didn't exactly appeal to Wilson, the talented Illinois linebacker.

"I was really pushing myself to be here," he said.

When Wilson takes the field these days at Camp Rantoul, he does so with a smile on his face. After dealing with disappointment both on and off the field in 2008, Wilson enters a new season playing a new position and carrying a new outlook.

The 6-4, 240-pound junior has moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, a move both Wilson and Illinois' coaches hope will maximize his obvious potential. Wilson arrived at Illinois with loads of hype and lofty expectations -- ESPN's Scouts Inc. rated him as nation's top defensive end and fifth best player nationally in the 2007 recruiting class -- but his performance has drawn mixed reviews.

Named to the Butkus Award preseason watch list last summer, Wilson finished third on the team in tackles (73) and recorded three sacks but didn't have the breakout season many had anticipated.

"I let myself down the most," he said.

As the middle linebacker, Wilson has taken on a greater leadership role and shown greater dedication to studying the game.

"In the summer, I got in the film room almost every day," he said. "I'd study our defense. I'd look back at spring practice, seeing what I did wrong, seeing what I did right, take down my own personal notes in my notebook. For instance, if we were playing Cover 2 and it was a run play and I was too high, I'd write down, 'Stay low. Use your hands more. Get off the block. Run to the ball.' Little things like that that help me mentally.

"It really paid off because I'm not struggling out there."

Wilson reviews his notes before each practice, which allows him to think less and lead more.

"He knows the defense," head coach Ron Zook said. "He's making calls that he never would have made last year. He understands the game now much better. I always tell him, 'How you live your life off the field is going to be how you live your life on the field.' If you're not structured off the field, you're not going to be disciplined on the field."

Zook never felt Wilson showed a lack of discipline off the field, but an incident in December nearly kept the linebacker sidelined for good. Wilson was stabbed outside a Champaign bar after coming to the aid of a former teammate. He underwent surgery and spent several days hospitalized.

The incident changed Wilson, and Zook has seen a different player this summer.

"He understands that he's a very lucky guy," Zook said. "He doesn't take stuff for granted. Before, when you're such an athletic guy as he is, in high school, he could get away with a lot of things just because of his athleticism. But you get this level, you have to be a smart football player."

Wilson's teammates see an obvious difference in camp.

"His whole attitude seems like it's changed from last year to this year," linebacker Ian Thomas said. "He's more hungry, just ready to play and excited."

Illinois' last two middle linebackers, J Leman and Brit Miller, both earned first-team All-Big Ten honors (Leman was an All-American in 2007), and big things also are expected from Wilson. Though Zook often says too much outside pressure is placed on Wilson at times, the junior seems ready for it.

"I've grown up a lot," Wilson said. "It's crazy what a year will do to you. It was more of a mental thing, knowing how good I could be. I've listened to what everybody tells me, the good and bad comments.

"I'm ready to fulfill everyone's expectations. Especially mine."