Sizing up the fall's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Senior Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson.
• Typecasting. As a recruit, Wilson was the rare sort of athlete who excels at wide receiver in high school while simultaneously emerging as a top-ranked prospect at defensive end and inevitably draws a wide variety of accusations by spurned suitors. Physically, at a lean, fast 6'4", 230, he looked like the sort of player who could succeed pretty much anywhere you put him on the field.
Somewhat controversially, Illinois chose to move Wilson to middle linebacker to replace tackle machine/American hero J Leman, and his potential there remains at least as high as the many question marks looming over his head after three turbulent seasons. Wilson shares the "underachiever" label with equally hyped classmate Arrelious Benn, the jewels of the stellar 2007 crop that reaffirmed Ron Zook's bona fides as a relentless recruiter, helped the Illini to the Rose Bowl as true freshmen and promptly fell off the face of the earth. Like Benn (who could always pin his mediocre production on erratic quarterback Juice Williams), Wilson's failure to live up to the hype has its major caveats: After finishing second on the team in tackles as a sophomore in 2008, he lost most of the subsequent offseason when was stabbed outside a club in an apparent attempt to back up a teammate, then lost the entire '09 regular season when he underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck after the second game. With two seasons of eligibility to go, Wilson still hasn't played enough -- and has played too well when he's seen the field -- to qualify as a bust.
• Best-case. Coaches put Wilson at linebacker to take advantage of his potential as a speedy, sideline-to-sideline ballhawk, on clear display here as a true freshman against another former ace recruit, Penn State's Derrick Williams, in 2007:
When he's free to run to the ball in space, Wilson will get there in time pretty much regardless of who happens to be carrying it, and his position in the middle of the field makes it much tougher for offenses to scheme away from him than if he was playing on the line.
• Worst-case. First of all, while Zook played off the stabbing as a noble gesture in aid of a teammate, Wilson is apparently the kind of guy who finds himself in the kind of place with the kind of people who will lead him to interject himself into a knife fight, and that came less than a month after being suspended by Zook for the '08 season finale. More tangibly, there are still Illini fans angry Wilson was taken out of his expected role as a nightmarish edge rusher to play a position that often neutralizes his speed by requiring him to read and react rather than explode off the line and to mix it up with much bigger bodies in the chaos of the interior line -- hardly the ideal place for a thoroughbred.
In the meantime, Wilson's projected prowess as a pass rusher has been virtually nil: He registered two sacks as a freshman and three as a sophomore on blitzing opportunities, but by and large, quarterbacks -- and offensive coordinators devising pass protection -- haven't had to worry about him in that capacity.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. Martez's nickname is "Big Two," aka "Grande Dos," which happens to be his Twitter handle. a) Science, b) The cinema, c) Healthy sleep patterns and d) The small pleasures of companionship. Don't sweat the grammar, kid.
• What to Expect in '10. Zook still thinks of Wilson as his "bell cow" and "the guy that everybody lean[s] on," and clearly expects him to assume the role of vocal and emotional leader, a role the Illini were clearly lacking in all phases during last year's disastrous descent to 3-9; Martez personally thought of himself as "the quarterback of the defense" before last season. Wilson was getting a little preseason all-conference love before the neck injury and ought to pick up the same expectations of a breakout season, even if the people who vote on such things are loathe to recognize him after the lost time; at the very least, he's probably the favorite to lead the team in tackles. If Wilson's going to have a real impact proportional to his raw talent, though, coaches will have to find ways to free him up as a blitzer or straight edge rusher to juice up the most anemic pass rush in the conference.
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Previously (alphabetical by school): Andre Ellington, Clemson. ... Tandon Doss, Indiana. ... Aldon Smith, Missouri. ... Nate Irving, N.C. State. ... Janzen Jackson, Tennessee. ... Jermaine Kearse, Washington.