Checking in with ... Martez Wilson

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- Wide receiver Arrelious Benn became the first member of Illinois' vaunted 2007 recruiting class to make his mark, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors last fall. This season, the Illini expect similar results from the other headliner of the class, linebacker Martez Wilson.

After losing All-America middle linebacker J Leman and valuable outside linebacker Antonio Steele, the Illini are looking for big things from Wilson, a 6-4, 246-pound specimen who often draws comparisons to former Illinois star Simeon Rice, another Chicago product who set the Big Ten sacks record [45]. Wilson collected 29 tackles and two sacks as a freshman but takes on an enhanced role as the team's starting weak-side linebacker.

"He's as good an athlete as we've had," co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Dan Disch said. "Last year, he probably played 20, 25 snaps a game on defense and got some experience. Now it's his turn to step up. He's got a chance now to hopefully take that next step."

I caught up with Wilson after lunch on Wednesday and discussed his expectations for the season, what he learned from last year and his potentially copy written nickname.

So I hear you go by Grande Dos now?

Martez Wilson: The guys on the team call me, "Chillz," but I like that better.

It's not too much like Chad Johnson?

MW: I mean, yeah, it's kind of similar, a little Spanish. I wore No. 6 high school and they always called me, "Big 6." I changed my number to 2 when I got here, so I just thought of Grande Dos.

What's been the biggest difference for you going through camp this year as opposed to last year?

MW: Just being a starter. Last year around this time, I was a backup, coming in with the 2s, backing up Antonio Steele. This year, it's more of a leadership role now. You've got to be available for the young kids and do your job at the same time. I know I'm a lot more mature. It feels like I've been here a lot longer than I have. It feels like I've been here for quite a while. To be around football like we do, you just learn and gain so much experience. It just depends on how much effort you put in.

Was maturity the aspect you needed to improve the most? It seemed like you always had the physical ability.

MW: Yeah, that was my biggest thing, just mature at this level and learn the defense, just learning to play aggressive every play. I'm reacting way faster. I'm playing to my potential, the [way] the coaches want me to now. I don't think no more out there. I just play.

Were there games last year when you felt yourself thinking out there?

MW: Yeah, sometimes. There were games where I caught myself. I would pause a little bit. But then at times, I knew what I was doing and I'd attack.

Do you like playing on the outside?

MW: I love outside linebacker. I get to use my speed, go sideline to sideline.

Did they ever consider having you as a down lineman?

MW: They were thinking about it, but no, I always stand up. If coach wants me to put my hand down, I would. I don't have any problem doing it.

People have made the Simeon Rice comparison. How does that make you feel?

MW: It doesn't bother me. To be compared to Simeon Rice, that's a high honor. He's such a good player.

What did you learn from playing behind Antonio and also from J [Leman]?

MW: Just every play, play aggressive, play hard. Read the pulls, just get to the ball. That was the biggest thing. At my position, sometimes you've got to stick the [No. 2] receiver and then you've got to see the run and the pulling [offensive linemen] all at the same time, in one play. That's the hardest point.

Rejus [Benn] said he came here to be The Guy. Is that the same way for you?

MW: I came in to make an impact, to help the team out, but also better myself.

The defense really struggled last year against Missouri. How much are you looking forward to that game to open the season, a national stage, facing a Top 10 team?

MW: I can't wait, actually. I'm ready to show everybody what I can do, too. I know our defense is going to come and play and they're going to be ready to play fast, hard and aggressive. We can be a better defense because of our athleticism and speed.