Multisport column, with items on the football team, former Illini Deron Williams, and more.
During the Illinois football team's walk-through Saturday at Memorial Stadium, it hit senior middle linebacker Brit Miller. After the last two seasons, when he spent third down and long on the sidelines, he's an every-down player.
"I'm looking forward to it,'' said Miller, a former Decatur Eisenhower star. "I think I excel at rushing the passer and covering guys. That's one of my strengths as a linebacker. I get to test it in the first game against one of the best receiving corps in the nation. I'm looking forward to the challenge.
"I feel like I can be an every-down type of player.''
Sophomore weakside linebacker Martez Wilson has even bigger plans as a first-year starter.
"I want to lead the nation in sacks by a linebacker,'' he said.
When No. 20 Illinois plays No. 6 Missouri in the season opener at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN), the Illini look to Miller and Wilson for production and a bigger workload while they replace starters J Leman and Antonio Steele. Miller has 25 starts in his career, and Wilson showed his potential in spot duty and special teams last season in his first year in the program.
The first assignment is tough. Missouri's high-powered offense includes two Heisman Trophy candidates, quarterback Chase Daniel and receiver Jeremy Maclin.
Miller dropped roughly 20 pounds and enters the season at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds. He averaged 44 plays on special teams last season at outside linebacker, then added up to 20 plays on special teams. He had 62 tackles last fall. A prep recruiting target at Chicago Simeon, Wilson averaged about 15 snaps per game on defense and played special teams last year. Wilson finished with 29 tackles.
"This first game is going to be a task,'' Miller said. "The defense played 89 plays last year (against Missouri). Those guys will spread it out, and we'll be tested.''
With the extra snaps, these linebackers also need to produce. Wilson made an impression during the two preseason scrimmages earlier this month with 14 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack. Miller had two tackles combined in the scrimmages, a quiet performance from the man in the middle.
Wilson is "going to be a big part of what they do,'' Daniel said. "He's a hybrid type of guy, very fast who can create problems. We'll have our eyes on him.''
The resident prankster known as "Brit the Hit,'' Miller also assumed some of the leadership duties from Leman. Meanwhile, Wilson is already a hit, considering was named to the Butkus Award preseason watch list.
"I was surprised actually,'' Wilson said. "I haven't started a college game.''
That comes Saturday against Missouri.
Deron Williams, the former Illini basketball guard, will return to campus for the A Night of Legends alumni basketball game on Sept. 13. His gold medal from the Beijing Olympics might also make an appearance.
"We're trying to encourage it, if we can get him to (bring) it,'' said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who stayed up until 4 a.m. Sunday to watch the gold medal game and the medal ceremony. Williams is the first former Illini to play for the United States in the Olympics.
The gold medal is "No. 1 my list,'' Williams said. "I don't have an NBA championship. I don't have a college championship. But even if I did, I'd still think the same. This is for your country.
"It's been a great experience for me, a lifetime experience, something I'm going to cherish the rest of my life. It makes it so much sweeter now that I have the gold medal around my neck. I have stories to tell my kids. It's kind of surreal right now to think that I'm an Olympic champion.''
Williams will likely get a call for in 2012 at the London Olympics.
"Deron has a future,'' Weber said. "When I visited with USA Basketball, they're hoping Deron would stick with them and be part of 2012. Between Deron and Chris Paul, that's the future at point guard.''
In other news
Added to the list of jerseys that will be honored are those of former players Jerry Colangelo, the man in charge of the U.S. basketball effort in Beijing; guard Bruce Douglas, the league's co-player of the year in 1984; and Jim Dawson, the league MVP in 1967. …
Tickets for the alumni basketball game are $15 and available at the Assembly Hall athletics box office, fightingillini.com or by calling 217-333-3470. …
Illinois senior defender Jamie Alvis earned defensive player of the week in Big Ten women's soccer after helping the Illini to a 2-1 win over No. 22 Missouri Saturday. While All-America defender Emily Zurrer hadn't returned from her appearance in the Beijing Olympics while playing for Canada, the Illini didn't allow a shot on goal by Missouri in the first half, and Alvis made several key stops. …
Former Illini Amer Delic and Ryler DeHeart are entered in the men's singles draw at the U.S. Open that began Monday. Delic is ranked No. 133 in the world. DeHeart reached the field through qualification play. …
Illini sophomore Scott Langley lost in first-round match play at the U.S. Amateur golf championships. Teammate Chris DeForest failed to reach match play.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.