Illinois' Wilson still needs time to blossom


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When Illinois sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson was named to the preseason Butkus Award watch list, hype and potential were the driving forces. Wilson is an incredible physical specimen: 6-foot-4, 246 pounds with sub-4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash. And he's often been compared to former Illinois star Simeon Rice.

But Wilson lacked the résumé of many Butkus candidates. He recorded only 29 tackles (3 for loss) last season as the third or fourth linebacker for a defense led by J Leman and Antonio Steele.

He still entered the fall projected to headline the Illini defensive midsection along with senior Brit Miller, and through four games he ranks second on the team in tackles with 32, including two sacks. Wilson has added two pass breakups and a fumble recovery, but he also has struggled at times. According to veteran Illini beat writer Mark Tupper, Wilson was "repeatedly out of position" in last Saturday's loss to Penn State.

With Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (32 ppg), head coach Ron Zook promised some personnel changes this week for the Michigan game (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Zook isn't shuffling the starting lineup but will increase the rotation at several spots. Wilson could be among the players seeing less field time, The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette's Bob Asmussen writes in his blog:

"Though he's as physically gifted as any player the school has ever had, Wilson still isn't playing the way Zook had hoped he would. It isn't a lack of effort. Or ability. Or mental preparation. For some reason, Wilson just can't make the jump from good player to great, even though his talents would suggest it's coming. Don't think about writing Wilson off. Give him some down time, with less pressure, and it might all come together for him."

This is a fair assessment, and it's clear that many of us, myself included, are guilty of hyping up Wilson a little prematurely. Here's another good piece on Wilson from the Illinois student newspaper, the Daily Illini, which quotes co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch:

"Potentially, as an athlete, he's as good as I've ever seen. But as a linebacker, he's still not there. He's middle of the road right now."