INDIANAPOLIS — Whitney Mercilus' junior season came as a surprise. A surprise to everyone but Mercilus, that is.
The Illinois defensive end, who stunned the college football world with his 16 sacks and 22½ tackles for loss in 2011, said his success was the result of a simple, logical progression.
When he recorded just three tackles for loss and one sack in his sophomore season, Mercilus was just learning the game. Now, he can spring free.
"It was just due to hard work; that's all it was," Mercilus said. "I just was able to put everything together. I was still learning the game as a redshirt sophomore and a redshirt freshman, and just last year, just studying myself more, seeing what I do best, I just put it all together for the 2011 season and I broke out that season."
As for speculation that Mercilus might be a one-year wonder, he rejected that label.
"It's a negative label, because once you have it, you have it," Mercilus said. "Once you're able to produce like that and put it all together, in your mind, you know you're able to repeat that success."
And as Mercilus pointed out, having one brilliant season is a far greater accomplishment than having one great game.
"It's just going out there and getting it each and every down, each and every game," Mercilus said. "There's no fluke to it. Sixteen is 16. There's no way you can just fall onto a sack."
Sure enough, Mercilus brought his best stuff each and every game. He finished with six sacks in his last five games, including 1½ sacks in Illinois' win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. His relative consistency was a rarity on a Fighting Illini squad that won six straight before losing six straight. Mercilus posted 8½ sacks during their season-opening win streak and added six sacks during his team's long losing streak prior to its bowl-game win.
Mercilus told media members at the 2012 NFL Combine that he thought his never-ending motor was one of his greatest strengths.
"I have a good first step, so I'm able to come off the line pretty quickly," Mercilus said. "Definitely, I'm able to wear out players, too. I have a never-ending motor and I'm able to keep going until the fourth quarter, until somebody is dog-tired and I'm just able to take advantage of them."
Of course, Mercilus could have dispelled any notion of him being a one-year wonder by staying in Champaign for his senior season. Yet, as the defensive end noted, not everyone has the luxury of staying a little longer.
"This has been a passion all my life to definitely play at the next level," Mercilus said. "Also, it was a way to help my family financially because I didn't come from a background where I had money just lying out there for me that I could use and everything. It was a way just to help them out and provide them with the life that they deserve, because they've worked so hard for all their life. Now, it's my turn to take care of them."
Mercilus also gave a lot of credit to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who coached him for his final two seasons in Champaign.
"I credit it definitely to his defense and how he created a mindset for us as a total defense to be able to go out there and play the way that we played," Mercilus said.
Koenning had tremendous success while in Champaign, instituting a pressure defense that ranked fourth nationally in tackles for loss and seventh nationally in sacks in 2011. The Fighting Illini also finished fifth nationally in passing defense and seventh nationally in total defense.
"He motivated the whole defense all across the board with his spiritual talks and everything," Mercilus said. "He had an aggressive-style defense, and it brought out our character, basically. We were able to let loose out on the field and just do our assignments right at the same time, though."
He also credited Fighting Illini OT Jeff Allen with challenging him in practice. Mercilus said that Allen was a definite NFL talent and noted the effect that he had on Mercilus' career.
"No doubt he is the real deal at offensive tackle," Mercilus said. "He moves great for a big guy, has great hand placement and everything, and being able to go against that type of competition each and every day and compete against somebody like that is definitely going to elevate your game and most likely propel you to be considered to go into the NFL."
Mercilus said he has received plenty of attention from NFL teams, including the Bears, Chargers and, most of all, the Bills.