Whitney Mercilus ascended to the starting role at defensive end upon the graduation of Clay Nurse. With plenty of experience behind him, Mercilus appeared primed for a breakout season.
That is, until a weight training accident threatened to waylay his promising career. He smashed a finger when a heavy weight landed on it. He had the tip of the finger removed immediately, but the concern was a lack of blood circulation might force the amputation of a larger portion of the finger. That would have affected his ability to play his position. Mercilus is understandably relieved his healing proceeded normally.
The injury will not affect his play this season.
"Everything's cool. I have a little splint on it, and I'm back in action. There's nothing really different, I'm still playing the same."
Minimal weight and conditioning training was lost, allowing Mercilus to be in top shape for the season.
"As soon as we came back from break, I jumped right back into it. Summer was great, doing the workouts and everything. I'm ready to get back in and get into the pads."
Speaking after the first fall practice, Mercilus admitted to some nervous anticipation.
"Practice was exhilarating. I was ready to get back out there. I was itching for a couple days, I couldn't sleep for a couple days. I'm excited.
"Camp is a time to sharpen things up. We'll find out our strengths and weaknesses when we put the pads on. We can't really tell anything with shorts and helmets."
Mercilus anticipates a big season for the Illini, in large part due to the togetherness of the team.
"The summer was excellent for the team. We built a little bit of mental strongness with the plays. With the friendly environment between us, we built that chemistry. I think we're gonna be good.
"We've been practicing the plays through the whole summer, so I think we're pretty strong. We have a lot of confidence between each and every one of the players."
The Akron, Ohio, native is the leader of a position that is perhaps the deepest on the team. Junior Glenn Foster has plenty of experience, and the two are backed by Tim Kynard, D.J. Woods and freshman Kenny Nelson. Foster will not be moving to tackle.
"Glenn is gonna stay there. As a group, I think we're coming along nicely. Glenn is trying to learn from what he did last year through film and everything. T.K. has been doing excellent in workouts this past summer, and D.J. also. So as a group, I think we're wising up."
Nelson is a lanky 6'-6." He will need time to learn the position and play with reckless abandon.
"He's very tall. His stance seems kind of awkward. He has to work on a couple things, especially because he's young. When I was young, I had the same problems. He reminds me of me when I first came here."
Many Illinois fans have wondered whether the Illini can generate a strong pass rush this fall. Mercilus will be an important part of that rush. In the past, he has struggled with confidence. Is he ready to lay it all on the line?
"During the spring, before my finger incident, I was becoming a little more aggressive I thought. My coach told me the same thing.
"In the summer, I just had to let everything go. I also thought I needed to be more aggressive. I had been kind of timid, but I think I will turn it up a notch this coming season."