Martez Wilson enjoyed being the kid with the high expectations placed on his massive shoulders.
He enjoys being the man meeting those expectations a whole lot more.
After three years and several speed bumps, Wilson has evolved into the linebacker Illinois always hoped he would be. Wilson ranks second in the Big Ten in tackles (9.1 tackles per game) and boasts 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, a blocked punt, three pass breakups and two quarterback hurries through the first seven games.
The 6-4, 250-pound redshirt junior has led Illinois in tackles in four of the last five games.
"People are just happy," Wilson said. "They're like, 'This is the Tez we've been expecting to see from the time you came in.' I showed signs of it freshman year, had a shaky sophomore year and got hurt last year. Now I'm able to showcase my talent."
Wilson came to Illinois as the nation's No. 5 recruit in 2007, a consensus five-star prospect. He appeared in every game as a true freshman, recording 29 tackles and two sacks as Illinois went to the Rose Bowl.
The team backslid in 2008, and so did Wilson, who had 66 tackles, three sacks and two fumble recoveries but often looked out of position. His season ended on a down note as he was suspended for the finale for violating team policy. Things turned scary weeks later as Wilson was stabbed outside a Champaign bar trying to help a former teammate who was being beaten on the street.
Wilson underwent surgery and spent several days in the hospital.
When Illinois reconvened for spring practice, coach Ron Zook saw a positive change in Wilson. The good signs continued through the summer and into preseason camp.
"I was pretty high and excited about his offseason," Zook said. "He had a great camp: very, very physical, leadership, all the things that you want your middle linebacker to do. And then he had the thing happen with his neck."
Wilson suffered a herniated disk in his neck in Illinois' season-opening loss to Missouri and underwent surgery weeks later. His season was over before it had started.
"I think he would have been the same type of player last year had he been able to play," Zook said. "It just goes back to the more times you play, the more experience you have, the better you're going to be. Everybody matures at a different rate. Martez is probably a guy who didn't mature as fast as everybody wanted him to right at the beginning."
Wilson agrees with Zook's assessment, especially when it comes to learning the game. He felt like he'd mastered the defense heading into the 2009 season.
The challenge was learning a new scheme this fall under new coordinator Vic Koenning.
"It wasn't that tough" he said. "I knew the responsibilities as far as 'hammer' and 'spill' the running back because of the last defense. Some of the terminology was the same. It was just learning the different gaps and the way we line up and things like that."
Illinois is using more starters on special teams this year, and Wilson has been part of the mix. He recorded one of the team's two blocked punts last week against Indiana and also had a blocked extra point try against Ohio State, which was called back on a penalty.
Wilson also has been selected as a co-captain for each of Illinois' last five games.
"I'm happy, and everyone else is happy," he said. "I can't ask for anything more."