- 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.”

There have never been questions about Wilson’s potential.

He is 6-foot-4 and weighs 250 pounds, and passed up USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State and other big-name schools to come to Illinois. He has the kind of lean athleticism on the field that leads coaches to believe he can make plays. The Illini moved him from defensive end to linebacker and told him he’d anchor the defense.

At times, though, there have been other questions.

Wilson was suspended for a game in late 2008 for violating team rules _ the details were never made public. A few weeks later, Wilson was stabbed helping out a friend and former teammate who was outnumbered outside the bar, Zook and others said at the time. Police never made an arrest.

“The guy did exactly what I would want him to do,” Zook said then. “If a person sees a person in stress, he should come to his aid.”

That injury healed in time for Wilson to be back on the field to start the 2009 season against the Tigers, where misfortune struck again.

“It came between two linemen on a screen play,” he said, adding that the hit wasn’t particularly hard. “As I collided with them I felt a pain in my body that I never felt before _ I felt a tingling and numbness, my whole body.”

“At that moment I was frightened because I never felt that before,” he added. “I couldn’t control my muscles.”

Wilson went back in the game _ finishing with nine tackles in a 37-9 loss that set the tone for the season _ but hasn’t played in a game since.

A doctor told him he needed surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck, that not operating could leave Wilson in a dangerously vulnerable position to more serious injury.

“He was really pushing me to have the surgery because it was best, not just for football but for my life,” Wilson said.

Doctors plugged a piece of bone from his hip into his neck, but told him he’d have to wait months before thinking about playing football, and it wasn’t a given that he would play again. His final OK came in late July.

Now, after playing through fall practice, contact included, with no problems, Wilson says it might finally be his year.

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