Illinois-Penn State preview: Martez Wilson ‘hungry’ to be great

John Supinie

Illinois junior middle linebacker Martez Wilson won't grow his hair long or follow the off-beat dietary habits of former Illini linebacker J Leman, but Wilson finally has a little bit of Leman in his game.

"No olive oil. No raw eggs,'' said Wilson, shaking his head. "He's a great guy. Don't get me wrong. Some of his beliefs were different.''

By preparing better and working harder, Wilson became a little more like Leman and little less like Super Tez, the nickname he gave himself upon arrival on campus as the athletic freak and USA Today All-America from Chicago Simeon High School who expected to overwhelm them with talent alone.

Somewhere along the way, Wilson learned it takes more than God-given ability and a 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame. He looked the part in his first two years on the field before a neck surgery sidelined him last year. In his fourth year in the program, Wilson is finally playing the part heading into Illinois' game at Penn State on Saturday in Big Ten Conference play.

Going against the school that bills itself as Linebacker U., Wilson looks to be transforming himself into the next really good one from the school that produced Dick Butkus, the player whose name is on the award that goes to the nation's top linebacker. Wilson leads the Illini with 34 tackles, five tackles for a loss and two sacks. He ranks in the top six in the Big Ten in each category.

Wilson did it by studying film, just like Leman, rather than relying on natural ability.

"If you watch how he played in a game, how he studied film through the week, he made less mistakes in a game,'' Wilson said. "He played fast. He knew what he was doing and where to go, where to be at the right time. I put myself in that position.''

Wilson's time watching film, actually DVDs, is up. He doesn't turn the video off until midnight, he said. Wilson imagines himself calling the defense and watches the linebacker play, whether it's right or wrong. 

"I can feel myself getting better,'' Wilson said. "I'm playing faster as the season goes. I'm getting mentally stronger. I have to make a play through my assignment. I trust my teammates. If I get in my gap fast enough and defeat my opponent, I'll make the play or my teammate will make the play.''

Wilson had a team-high nine tackles with two tackles for a loss and one sack in the 24-13 loss to No. 2 Ohio State last weekend.

Wilson appears to be maturing. After a disappointing sophomore year, Wilson needed stomach surgery to repair stab wounds after a late-night fight at a campus bar.

"He's a great athlete, a freak of nature,'' said safety Trulon Henry. "Once he really gets this thing and clicks, it's going to be scary. The last game, he looked pretty close. It's coming.

"You just have to continue working hard and studying our craft. He's in the film room now. I've not seen him more hungry than now. He's sees it starting to click with him, and it's coming.''

Wilson is "significantly'' better than a month ago, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said.

"I don't know if he's to the point where (defenses) have to find him,'' Koenning said. "On the second long run by (Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor last weekend), he beat three other guys in the secondary to go tackle him. That shows what he's got in the tank.''

Wilson underwent surgery last season to repair a vertebra in his neck, he said, in a procedure where surgeons took bone from his hip. He suffered the season-ending injury against Missouri a year ago, then got off to a slow start in the season opener this year against the Tigers, when he was reminded of the injury.

"I stood on the same exact spot,'' Wilson said. "I felt my injury, had a flashback. I didn't play 100 percent loose. I did have thoughts go through my head. After that game, I didn't feel any pain in my neck. I told myself to trust my doctors. I'm 100 percent good, and I'll play like it.''

Both Illinois and Penn State will likely rely on defenses.

With a makeshift line and rookie quarterback Rob Bolden -- the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for coach Joe Paterno -- Penn State ranks 10th in the Big Ten in rushing offense (138.2 yards per game), 10th in total offense (355.2) and 11th in scoring offense (19.2 points per game).

The Illini are 11th in total offense in the Big Ten (332) and 11th in passing offense (130.9). Illinois starts redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

John Supinie can be reached at

Illinois (2-2) vs. Penn State (3-2)

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Beaver Stadium (107,282), State College, Pa.

Series record: Penn State leads 14-3

Big Ten records: Illinois 0-1, Penn State 0-1

Last meeting: Penn State 35-17 (2009)

Rankings: Both teams unranked



The line: 

Coaches: Ron Zook, 23-41 in sixth year at Illinois, 46-55 in ninth year overall; Joe Paterno, 397-131-3 in 45th year at Penn State and overall.

NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 29th, 210.5; passing 113th, 130.5; scoring 86th, 22.2; total 88th, 332.0. Illinois defense -- rushing 42nd, 130.0; passing 52nd, 192.2; scoring 29th, 18.0; total 37th, 332.2. Penn State offense -- rushing 75th, 138.2; passing 68th, 217.0; scoring 100th, 19.2; total 75th, 355.2. Penn State defense -- rushing 31st, 118.2; passing 25th, 172.2; scoring 15th, 15.0; total 18th, 290.4.

Notable: Illini receiver Eddie McGee is expected to see more action after limited duty against Ohio State while recovering from a sprained ankle. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne (foot) and tight end-fullback Zach Becker (foot) are questionable. Safety Steve Hull (ankle) is unlikely to play. … Illinois is 0-6 all time in Beaver Stadium. Illinois has two wins over Penn State since the Nittany Lions began playing in the Big Ten in 1993. … Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure ranks second in the Big Ten and 13th in the nation with 119.5 yards per game. … Penn State had 54 yards rushing and finished 3 for 13 in third-down conversions last week in a loss to Iowa. Nittany Lions senior tailback Evan Royster has 3,271 career rushing yards, ranking fourth in school history.

Quotable: "It's another great challenge this week. To me, it's exciting to go to a place where we've never won before. All I know is the percentages are better that we're going to win.'' -- Illinois coach Ron Zook.

Prediction: Penn State 20, Illinois 17