ST. LOUIS -- Illinois junior Tavon Wilson swore in the preseason like many of his teammates that the Illini weren’t going to be the same team they were a year ago.
From spring practice to the Big Ten Media Days to the days leading up to the team’s season-opener, Wilson pledged things would be different this year. The defense would stop opponents. The offense would score points. Illinois would win more games.
Wilson knows what he’s said, and he stands by that. But he also knows with the 11:40 a.m. kickoff against Missouri at Edward Jones Stadium on Saturday, his words will no longer be able to defend the Illini against their critics. Finally, Wilson and his teammates will have to speak with their play.
"Now, we got to show what we’ve been talking about all year," Wilson said earlier in the week. "We’ve been talking about new changes and the new coaches. It’s time for us to go out to prove it."
For Wilson to succeed at that, much of that burden will fall on him and the rest of Illinois’ secondary.
In the past two weeks, injuries have depleted Illinois’ secondary. First, it lost safety Supo Sanni for the season when he tore his Achille’s tendon. Shortly after, cornerback Terry Hawthorne injured his foot and is expected to miss three to five weeks.
In their place, Wilson moved from starting cornerback to safety, and Justin Green transformed himself from a backup running back to a starting cornerback. The other spots will be filled by safety Trulon Henry, a junior college transfer, and senior cornerback Travon Bellamy.
"I was kind of shocked [by the injuries], but I was ready to regroup and was open to whatever the coaches needed me to do as a leader back there," Wilson said. "I was open to it and ready for the challenge."
Missouri’s offense will present a different sort of challenge on Saturday. Tigers quarterback Blaine Gabbert abused Illinois’ secondary in last year’s Arch Rivalry for 319 yards and three touchdowns. He surely will look to do the same due to Illinois situation.
Others expect the same. The line for Saturday’s game is Missouri by 13.5 points.
Wilson isn’t listening, though.
"We don’t really get into what people say on the outside," Wilsons said. "We know we have great athletes on the team and capable of getting the job done."
Only their actions will tell on Saturday.