The New Orleans Saints move to switch to a 3-4 defense for the 2013 season could form the perfect storm for third-year veteran Martez Wilson.
The 2012 campaign finished in a disaster for the Saints on defense. The unit set an NFL all-time high mark by allowing the most yards (7,042) in a single season. The aftershocks of that poor showing led the dismissal of first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
The demands on the defensive unit were extensive for each player, individually and collectively, to coordinate with multiple responsibilities while counteracting multiple offensive formations. Many variables that the opposing offense demonstrated required numerous checks and adjustments. All had to be synchronized by the defense immediately. A large share of the responsibility in the Spagnuolo system last season was thrust upon the free agent middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who had to make all the master checks and had to know where everyone was lining up.
Another younger player was facing a steep learning curve for multiple reasons.
A third round draft pick in 2011, Wilson has lined up in different roles the past two seasons, initially at linebacker (2011) and then at defensive end (2012). "At first I liked being at defensive end, permanently I did not," Martez explained. "I had to re-learn the four-point stance. At first I was just rushing. It was all a learning experience."
Understanding his role and responsibility has been a challenge, but Wilson is used to learning how to play new roles on the field. "I've played all (defensive line) positions: end, standup tackle, one-tech (NT), three-tech (DT). I can drop from middle or weakside linebacker. There are a lot of 3-tech and 5-tech relationships, but I like to stand up and see. Even in high school as a defensive lineman, I stood up so that I could read and react."
Wilson was a highly-regarded recruit in the 2007 class as the second-rated defensive end in the nation out of Simeon Career Academy, a school with 1,500 students in Chicago, Illinois. He earned Parade and USA Today All-American honors, securing a spot in the U.S. Army All-Star game after recording 339 tackles his final two prep seasons (including 240 as a senior) with 25 sacks.
The problem was where to play the versatile star, who excelled on offense as a wideout, ran a 10.8 hundred meters and displayed a 36 1/2" vertical.
"I loved offense. I had 42 catches for 1,005 yards and nine touchdowns my senior year," Wildon said. "I was waiting to see who (recruiters) would ask about that. I had hands, ran good routes and wasn't afraid to run crossing patterns." He excelled in all facets enough that he never left the field during a game in high school.
Wilson was a high school teammate of former NBA MVP Derrick Rose but decided that basketball didn't challenge him sufficiently. "I liked contact," he grinned, admitting his disdain for "ticky-tack" fouls.
When it came time to decide on a path for college, Wilson chose Illinois, Michigan, Notre Dame, USC and Ohio State for the final cut. Former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Ron Zook was the head coach the Fightin' Illini. Despite feeling pressure to head to Notre Dame, the prospect with a generous dose of sensitivity and compassion felt a pull to stay home at Illinois.
"Ron Zook is someone who I highly respect. He coached me to be a better man. He told me that no matter what I was told that it was going to be tough sometimes. He didn't paint water colors. He said that I would have to work to earn whatever I got," Wilson said.
Martez lined up at both inside and outside linebacker during his college days and was recognized as a freshman All-American in 2007. He suffered a herniated disc in his neck in the season opener in 2009 against Missouri and missed the remainder of the season but returned in 2010 with a vengeance to post 102 tackles including 12 tackles for loss from his weakside linebacker spot.
Throughout his prep days and college career, he experienced action at every spot in the front seven. "I've played all positions. I know the tendencies of the offensive linemen. I can cover receivers. I like rushing (the passer), but I love blitzing," Wilson emphasized.
Blitzing is more of a sneak attack from 3-4 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Rushing the passer is lining up along the front and coming with a full head of steam. The latter may be his new primary responsibility as a professional.
Early indications are that new Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has Martez slotting in as an outside linebacker, a position it appears that he is ideally suited to embrace.
Josh Brent, who has been a Dallas Cowboys nose tackle under Ryan, played collegiate ball at Illinois with Wilson. He thinks his ex-Illini teammate will excel under his now ex-coach. "No reason why (Martez) shouldn't be All-NFL in that defense with his skills," said Brent.
Ryan arrives in New Orleans with a reputation for operating an aggressive unit. He has 15 years of NFL experience and over a quarter century in the coaching profession. His defenses at past stops in the NFL - Oakland, Cleveland and Dallas - all produced a high number of turnovers and sacks.
"Rob Ryan's coming here is one of the best moves because of his defenses," Wilson declared. "It will put me in a position to make plays. He will recognize I can play with athleticism and I will learn his expectations inside and out. He's aggressive, but puts players in positions to succeed. Basics are vital. I have the potential to be a starter, I know what it takes to be great. I will do whatever it takes to make plays. The team excitement will be high."
Martez and his defensive teammates understand that they share the locker room with a player who makes a huge difference on offense in quarterback Drew Brees.
"Our job is easier because of Drew. He doesn't like punting. He doesn't like failure. We've got to do our part to put him back on the field. We have to force turnovers and be efficient on defense," Wilson explained.
The transition will be aided by veteran leadership in the huddle for the Saints. Veterans Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith are back in the fold after renegotiating their contracts. "They're both professionals, leaders, good locker room guys. They're good people, team players, not selfish," said Wilson.
The franchise traveled a challenging path in 2012, one that had never been experienced by any professional team in sports history. The adversity from the bounty saga and aftermath allowed all those associated with the organization to bond.
Saints assistant head coach and linebackers coach Joe Vitt guided the ship through some turbulent waters last fall. Wilson recognized something special about Vitt immediately upon his arrival as a rookie. "I knew that Joe was different when I first met him. He's got that Italian way about him," Wilson noted with a hearty laugh. "He teaches life lessons, different from most other linebacker coaches. He takes time out of his day to know the players. I learned so much in the film room under Joe."
Having head coach Sean Payton return is a mega uplift to the organization as a whole. Payton possesses an aura, demonstrating a high level of confidence and control missing in the locker room last season. "Sean's back. His leadership, his ability to make decisions, the right moves. We've got our leader back," stressed Wilson. "You feel his presence and his love there."
New Orleans, the city that care forgot, has captivated the native of Chicago. It didn't take him long to understand the allure of the Crescent City.
"I didn't know much about the Saints or New Orleans. The city holds a uniqueness and charm. It is similar to Champagne, Illinois." Wilson said, comparing his professional location to the college town where the University of Illinois is located. "I love the fans because it's like a college town. The hospitality is number one. The people are always greeting us. They make you feel more welcomed. There's more sincerity. They are much more layed back and relaxed."
Outdoor activity was a different experience from the frigid north." I enjoy the heat. In December and January, you can wear shorts instead of a hat, jacket, two pairs of socks and long underwear," joked Wilson. "I do more festivals. There are more of them than I have ever seen. I learned how to be around different people and adapt. There's crawfish and charbroiled oysters, lots of seafood, it's special. They have the Essence Festival and Mardi Gras here; both have some similarities."
Wilson has come a very long way from the days that he tried to learn how to play football wearing equipment, after experiencing the game on the sandlots and playgrounds of Chicago, fine tuning his skills by playing flag football. Through the patience and guidance of Robert Beverly, a gym teacher and basketball coach at John Harvard elementary, he started the road to success. "He motivated me to play, he encouraged me. He saw something in me," said Wilson of Beverly. "I was a practice player who couldn't adjust to the equipment. I was nervous and uncomfortable," as he shakes his head.
Now a chiseled 6-foot-4 and nearly 260 pound specimen, Martez Wilson enters a new episode of his life and career. He wants to reward those who have had confidence in him. For a player who only recorded 29 total tackles and three sacks during his brief career in the NFL, it appears that the sky could be the limit as he approaches the next phase.
"I feel blessed. I want to affect others positively and touch their lives," Martez said. "Some people work hard to be great. I work to be the best."
Those words could end up to be music to the ears of football fans in New Orleans.
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