Despite loss of Wilson, Illini confident in LBs

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Illinois offense should be at full strength for the first time this season Saturday at No. 13 Ohio State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), but the Illini defense will be coping with the loss of a key player.

Starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson has been ruled out for the rest of the season because of a herniated disk in his neck. Wilson's presence will be missed in the hub of the Illini defense, but the team has full faith in those who will replace him against the Buckeyes.

"Everybody feels awful for Martez because of the way he's worked, but that's the game," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "We talk about that all the time. There's going to be adversity, and the teams that handle the adversity the best are going to be the teams usually that have the most success.

"Evan Frierson, the guy who's going to step into his spot, is really excited about this opportunity. He's a guy who will get better every time he steps on the field."

Frierson, a 6-2, 225-pound redshirt freshman, has one assisted tackle in two career games. He'll get help from sophomores Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington against the Buckeyes.

Thomas, who turned heads during the preseason with his play and tremendous strength, leads Illinois with 17 tackles to go along with two sacks and two pass breakups. Ellington had a 78-yard interception return against Illinois State.

“Ian has developed a lot," defensive tackle Josh Brent said. "He’s always been a talented guy, one of those guys who is always around the ball. He just had to learn the concept of the defense. The mike linebacker in our defense is pretty much the quarterback and calls all the plays."

That role now falls to Thomas, who will remain on the outside but call the signals.

Illinois started only two linebackers (Thomas and Ellington) in its first game without Wilson and could continue to do so against spread teams. But the Illini likely need three 'backers against Ohio State, usually assigning one to multitalented quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

"Martez is a close friend of mine and you hate to see someone of his ability and talent go down," Brent said. "But you use it as a motivator. We keep him in our memory as we go out here and practice this week, [knowing] that any play could be your last. In a sense, we play for him and don’t get down about it and have some of the other guys step up and be leaders."