Whitney Mercilus came to Illinois with the reputation of being an aggressive and tenacious defensive end. He was also slightly built at 6'-3", 220 pounds. But after two years in Lou Hernandez's strength and conditioning program, Mercilus looks more like a prototypical defensive end.
"I actually went back down to 256 (he weighted 265 in the spring), but I'm moving good. I'm stronger, putting up the bar. I'm about 600 on the squat and about 405 on the bench. Lou likes to go hard in the summer to improve you."
The Akron Garfield star was seen racing teammate Justin Staples off the field at Camp Rantoul after the defense was kept afterwards doing repeated up-downs. Obviously, he is in top shape. His explanation for racing at the end of a long, hot day was simple.
"Coach says you have to face adversity or lay down."
Mercilus played last year as a redshirt freshman substitute, but he has continued to make improvements since then.
"My coach encourages us to play faster, play faster. Last year I was young, and I was still trying to learn the game. But now that we've got new coaches and a new defense, it gives me a reminder. I know my assignments, and I don't have to think while I play. So it makes me go a lot faster."
Of course, he knows there are still techniques that need work.
"There's a lot of things I can improve on. Playing the run a little bit better, making sure I'm not overstepping in my steps. And doing better on my pass rush, making it a little faster especially on play action."
He says Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning has changed the attitude of the defense this year.
"Yeah, our attitude has changed, like a full 180."
Mercilus likes how the defense is coming together.
"I think we have a pretty good package. Martez (Wilson) is getting everybody up, Ian (Thomas) is getting me hyped on the defense. It's the energy everybody has on defense. We're trying to create that bond. Like Coach Vic says, coming together like a family. If you have that, it's unbelieveable possibilities."
The Illinois offense is improving also, giving the defense plenty of competition. It makes both groups better.
"Oh yeah, every day. It's like we hate each other. When it's over we're friends. We just leave everything on the field. Off the field we're good. We're just trying to get that energy to make each other get better."
Mercilus would rather have been given a battlefield commission. But when starting Bandit Mike Buchanan was suspended, Clay Nurse moved from defensive end to replace him. That gave Mercilus the opportunity he needed.
"I'm trying to earn playing time. There's competition out here. Just go hit and go hard. Just trying to get a spot if you can."
Mercilus stuffed the stat sheet in his first starting assignment against SIU. Humble as ever, he was reluctant to pat himself on the back.
"It was just due to practice all week. I was reading my keys. It's like muscle memory. It's allowed me to play faster than I have in the past. Coach Zook says I've been improving a lot over the summer. I got in, and it was my time to shine."
He may have become a starter due to the failings of a teammate, but he has earned it.