- Associated Press - Friday, September 3, 2010

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - In three years at Illinois, Martez Wilson has gotten a firsthand medical education.

He can talk at length about the numbness and fear that follow a neck injury like his last fall against Missouri, and the months spent recovering after surgery.

He can tell you about the way a jolt of adrenaline can hide the worst of the pain when a knife goes into your back, which happened to him in a fight outside a local bar.

What he doesn’t have much experience with yet is what he came to town to do: become a great college football player, the kind who changes games and enters Memorial Stadium history like Grange and Butkus did on their way to the NFL.

“I’ve been through a lot of things since I’ve been here,” Wilson said. “I had to sit out a whole year; I had to take the constructive criticism from fans and everyone.”

Illinois starts its football season Saturday against Missouri. For Wilson, it’s not the junior linebacker’s first shot to live up to the promise he brought from Chicago. Only the latest.

Wilson was a top prospect when he joined the Illini in 2007 along with fellow high-ranked recruit Arrelious Benn, now a Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver. Wilson is two seasons removed from his best year, when he had 69 tackles as a sophomore, third-best on a five-win team.

This year in particular, the Illini need the middle linebacker to come through.

Defense was one of the biggest problems last season for the Illini, who allowed a Big Ten-worst 30 points a game. And it was one of the biggest reasons the team went 3-9, a record that cost most of coach Ron Zook’s staff their jobs and brought a new defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning, to town.

The defensive scheme is new, but already there are questions. Two of the four starting members of the secondary are out with injuries, one of them for the season.

While Zook and other coaches have talked every year about the need for him to be a leader, Wilson is soft-spoken, and, from all appearances, quiet and patient in a way that most linebackers are not.

Wilson says he’s healthy, and ready to lead the defense.

“I’m excited _ I’ve been off for a year, you know?” Wilson said. “No one can take this feeling away from me.”

Zook gives Wilson a vote of confidence like the one he’s given him every year since 2007, with one qualifier.

“He’s a hundred percent, he’s fine,” Zook told reporters before fall practices started last month. “Everybody wants to dwell, and that’s fine _ it was a serious injury, (and) he hadn’t lived up to maybe what everybody thought he might.”

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