Wilson a football freak
CHAMPAIGN – His reputation precedes him. Always has.
As an eighth-grader in Chicago, word got out about the superstar athlete, who ended up being an All-Stater at Simeon High School.
As a high school senior at Simeon, college after college came calling. He made the tough choice, picking 2-10 Illinois over a string of higher-profile programs. Some of them howled about the choice. But Martez Wilson stayed firm. The next year, he was a reserve linebacker on a Rose Bowl team.
Going into his sophomore season at Illinois, before he had started a game, Wilson was put on the Butkus Award watch list. And preseason magazines named him to their All-Big Ten teams.
After two games, the reality of Wilson is starting to catch up to the reputation.
"He made steps last week, and I think he'll make steps this week," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "We all know Martez has got all the tools in the world."
What kind of tools? Freakish ones. Once-in-a-lifetime tools. Or, in Zook's case, twice in a lifetime.
Zook was at Florida during the early years of the original "Freak," defensive end Jevon Kearse. Kearse later would go on to become NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and be among the highest-paid players in the game.
"He wasn't in the same league (as Martez) at this point in time and career," Zook said. "Obviously, we all know how great of a player he is. We weren't sure Jevon's second year whether to play him at tight end or linebacker."
Kearse got better. Just like Zook expects Wilson to get better.
"We all want him to play like an All-Pro player right now," Zook said. "He does, too. It's not going to happen. It takes time."
Wilson needs to play faster, Illinois co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. He has improved in the critical area from the spring to training camp and into the season.
"He hasn't opened her up yet," Disch said. "When he's chasing the ball, sometimes you see what he can do, but we've got to get him to play at that speed all the time."
After two games, Wilson is second on the team in tackles with 20. He leads the team with 3.5 tackles for loss.
Wilson doesn't stop playing until the final whistle. He proved it against Eastern Illinois, making the tackle on a punt return to end the game.
"We wanted to end it the right way," Wilson said. "I was just happy to get the last tackle of the game."
He is his own harshest critic. Most guys averaging 10 tackles their first two games as a starter would be beyond satisfied. Not Wilson.
The phenom aims higher. He wants to make an impact on every play, in every game.
"I've done all right," Wilson said. "I'm making progress. The first game was a wakeup for me. I got the feel for the game as a starter. Second game, I got better. I still need to freshen up on some things. As the season goes on, I feel I'm going to get better game to game."
You can't beat being on the field.
"I learn something new every game," Wilson said. "Game experience is a lot different than practice."
There were high expectations before the season started. The early call by the Butkus pickers made sure of that.
"I don't really think about it too much," Wilson said. "That's not my first priority. My first priority is to have a good season, have a good game."
Illinois fans have been talking about him since he put on the Illinois cap during a recruiting news conference. He was the Illini defense's answer to receiver Arrelious Benn. Both star players. Both making a difficult college choice.
He didn't have the same impact, statistically, as Benn as a freshman. He made 29 tackles in 13 games, with a high of five against Western Illinois. He was an honorable mention Freshman All-American. While Kearse redshirted as a freshman at Florida, Wilson got on the field his first season.
"Playing last year helped a lot, too," Wilson said. "I got a feel for the college atmosphere."
He got to watch and learn from J Leman, Antonio Steele and Brit Miller. They all offered advice, knowing Wilson's time on the sideline was ending soon.
"They helped me a lot," Wilson said.
Wilson set big goals for himself as a sophomore. He'd like to lead the nation's linebackers in sacks. He'd like to get in the top five of the Butkus Award, with hopes of winning it before he leaves college.
"I know I have potential," Wilson said. "Everyone else knows that, too. It's not up to them. I try as hard as I can to improve my game. I feel like I've got potential to be great, too.
"I need to work on my weaknesses. I need to be more relentless."
Wilson's already among the team leaders in nicknames. Some call him "Tez." Many of his teammates call him "Chillz." Where'd that come from?
"It was an off-the-field thing," Wilson said.
One explanation is that when teammates or friends call Wilson and ask him what he's up to, the answer is often "just chilling."
And Wilson has his own nickname.
"I call myself 'Grande Dos' (Big Two)," Wilson said. "In high school, the coaches called me 'Big Six' because I wore No. 6. I carried it into college."
"Grande Dos" claims to be quiet on the field, a leader by example. But he's got a personality. One that is growing with his skills.
He protested the penalty call in the Washington-BYU game last week, arguing that players ought to be able to celebrate.
"I think they should change the rule," Wilson said. "Football is a game of entertainment, too."
Promise there will be no penalty and Wilson has an end zone celebration in mind.
" 'My Dougie,' " Wilson said. "That's the name of a song that's out. You've got to see the dance. I'd be thinking of something new to do every week, but that's the first thing I'd do, 'My Dougie.' "
As a high school senior, Wilson starred on offense and defense. He was a top receiver who felt he could have played the position in college.
Wilson has pretty much given up the idea of playing both ways at Illinois. But ...
"I know I can catch the ball," Wilson said.
Zook isn't against the idea.
"It's not out the window," Zook said. "We were talking about it at supper the other night. I said, 'Tez, when you start playing defense like you can play, then we'll add to your plate. Right now, let's perfect the defensive side of the ball.' "
No surprise, Wilson's football idol is Terrell Owens. A receiver.
"I was an offensive guy growing up," Wilson said. "I always wanted to be a receiver. As the years progressed, my coaches and I felt I would be better on defense."
His best hope to touch the ball is an interception. Defensive end Derek Walker got one the first week. Linebacker Miller got his against Eastern Illinois.
"I haven't gotten a pick yet," Wilson said. "I can't wait."
An early guess
Staff writer Bob Asmussen’s picks for the Butkus Award:
PLAYER SCHOOL COMMENT
1. James Laurinaitis Ohio State Buckeyes’ leading tackler can almost guarantee the award with a big game tonight against the Trojans.
2. Rey Maualuga Southern Cal Juice Williams can still feel the pain from January’s Rose Bowl. He’s got a prime-time chance to state his case.
3. Gerald McRath Southern Miss The offense gets all the attention in Hattiesburg, but the junior is tackling everybody.