The stories are all too prevalent in football. A superstar talent seeing his career derailed by a major injury. Such was the case with Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson. A highly touted recruit as a high school All-American, Wilson saw playing time as a true freshman. Following a sophomore season that showed much improvement, Wilson's junior year was to be the breakout season. His plans were dashed after the first game when a herniated disc in his neck led to surgery.
Fortunately Wilson was granted a medical hardship by the NCAA preventing him from losing a year of eligibility. With plans all along to play just three collegiate seasons, Wilson knew his 2010 campaign would have to be a big one. The Fighting Illini's defensive leader delivered.
Playing inside linebacker after spending most of his previous two seasons on the outside, Wilson was a playmaker registering 112 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a blocked kick.
"It was very much needed," said Wilson of his productive season. "It was important to come off an injury like that,that ended my junior season. Coming in off of neck surgery, most people wouldn't probably
want to play football again after an injury of that nature. So just to come back and have the ability to have a great season like I did was wonderful. I loved every bit of it. I credit it just to my passion for the game, to the love of the game and my family."
At almost 6'4" and 250 pounds, Wilson is put together well and he showed as much at the NFL combine. Wilson ran a 4.49 40-time got 23 reps on the bench despite almost 35-inch arms, broad jumped 10'4" and had a 36-inch vertical.
His lanky frame has some thinking he's better suited for an outside linebacker role. With an 83-inch wingspan even the defensive staff at Illinois had him start his career on the outside, where he came after the quarterback in blitz situations.
Come this past season however, they saw those long arms as an asset in defending the passing lanes from an inside linebacker position. Wilson did not play tentative despite the high-impact nature of his position coming off of neck surgery. He met running backs in the hole with the same aggressiveness he's always brought to the field. His only requirement was to wear a neck roll.
"My doctor said that he wanted me to wear a neck roll definitely this past year," he said. "But as the days go by, my neck's getting even healthier. I mean, the neck roll probably can go, but I don't know right now. But as far as this past season, it was definitely required."
Wilson quickly adjusted to the run-first nature of the Big Ten conference helping him to develop his run-pass recognition skills.
"You definitely have to attack the run," he said. "The Big Ten is more of a running conference. I think that was one of the biggest things that helped me, learning how to take on blocks, just learning to come downhill and attack the running back and things of that nature. We had some pro style offenses, a majority of them spread. I think that was an advantage too, there's a lot of pro-style offenses in the NFL, and I think that was two of the main things that helped me."
Though he played most of his snaps on the inside the Illini staff would move him out on the edge in pass rushing situations knowing his athleticism and long reach would enable him to get pressure on the quarterback.
"I feel like my versatility is definitely one of my advantages," Wilson said. "My athleticism overall will just help me in a position to play both inside, outside. A little pass rush, blitzing when needed. So I definitely think I have that ability."
One of his better efforts came in a 23-13 loss to Ohio State. Wilson had nine tackles including a pair for loss with a sack. Later in the year against Northwestern, Wilson posted six tackles with three going for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in a 48-27 win. The linebacker just hopes he's afforded the same freedom to take on different roles defensively in the NFL.
"If I could play kind of similar to how I was playing at Illinois both inside, outside at times, even blitzing off the edge at times, if I was able to do all that, that would be best," he said. "Wherever a coach would want me to play, put me in the best position to make plays for the team, I'll do it."
As ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper sees it, Wilson is a specimen, but still hasn't reached his full potential.
"A super talented kid," said Kiper. "He played outside then played the middle. Had the injury as a sophomore and as a junior started getting after the quarterback and can do a lot of good things for you. When you look at Wilson, once he's had a little more experience and can master the position, he has a burst and can rush the passer and was really productive. He really stepped forward this year.
"In a bad inside linebacker class, one of the weakest positions in this draft, he's the best and he's the best by a significant margin. He's got a chance to be an early to mid-second round pick."
That would put him in the mix for the Bills with the second pick in round two knowing GM Buddy Nix is looking to add some bigger, stronger inside backers to help against the run.
Wilson certainly isn't lacking for confidence in filling such a role.
"I have the potential to be one of the best ever," he said. "I'm very confident in my game. As you can see, I don't show any shyness on the field. Even off of injury, I still showed a passion for the game. What I want everyone to know is that this kid really loves the game and he plays with passion.
"And when you play the game with passion, you play harder, you practice harder, you do everything that much more, and I want everyone to take that into account."