Junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus was honored with 1st team All-Big 10 mention Monday.
"It's definitely been a blessing. It feels great. I wanted to work for one of those weekly awards, try to get that. But this is way better."
He knew something was up when he received a 6:45 am text asking him to come in for interviews. The only thing that would have topped his surprise would be a Defensive Player of the Year award, but he fell short of that designation.
"That would have been nice too. But there are better players out there. I did all I could. At least I did a couple things to be noticed for."
Leading the league both in sacks and forced fumbles was definitely noticeable, and Mercilus deserves every honor he receives. But his primary thoughts fall in other directions at this time. Suffering an embarrassing loss at Minnesota was bad enough, but losing head coach Ron Zook on top of it was difficult to accept.
"The last 24 hours have been rough. After losing a game we should have won, it really cut deep in players' hearts, and mine too. And losing our coach at the same time, it dwells on us a lot. He's a great person, and he would fight for us. If guys get in trouble, he would fight for them no matter what. He pushes us hard because he knows how hard this business is. He wants nothing but the best for us.
"On a personal note, it set really deep in my heart, and I love him. I wish the best for him. I just wish he could have stayed for the younger guys. I don't know what's going on with them. I feel for them also."
Illinois is likely to receive a bowl invitation, but there is no guarantee the players will wish to participate.
"We'll have a players' meeting in the next few days and discuss it with our teammates. Find out what everybody's feeling and what we want to do and go from there. And prove to Vic (Koenning, interim head coach) we definitely do want to go to a bowl game.
"After the last 24 hours, there was a lot of discouragement. It's a really heavy feeling in the locker room. There's guys that are discouraged; we just have to find out what's on each player's mind. Personally, I feel kind of discouraged too, but being a leader, I have to get other guys going.
"It's mixed feelings, a little shock, a little anger and sadness all at the same time. It's not something I can really describe. In our meeting yesterday, Zook told us what happened, that he was relieved of his duty. Just listening to that, it was kind of shocking.
"I've experienced coaching staff change through my time here, but I haven't experienced a head coach change, somebody who's been here for that long and someone I had a deep relationship with. It's a lot to take in."
He was asked if he is willing to play a bowl game. His affirmative answer lacked any optimism or excitement. Hopefully, time will rejuvenate positive emotions.
"I'd be game to go. But it's a lot to take in in 24 hours."
Before he was let go, Zook stated he felt Mercilus was deserving of All-American honors.
"Yes, I do. Any time you're leading or up there at the top of the country in sacks, you've got to have consideration. I know there's a lot of All-America teams out there that he's high on the list, and I think deservingly so. I think one of the things about Whitney is he's back, and he's going to get nothing but better."
Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown, who made 2nd team all-conference as voted by media, played alongside Mercilus this year. They made a great combination.
"It's been a great one," Brown stated. "Whitney was one of the hardest workers we had on the team. He's a tireless worker. You can't ask any more from a teammate. He's a great guy as well. It's been fun playing with Whit. I think he can be a great player at the next level."
Yes, questions now arise whether Mercilus will return for his senior season. Koenning was asked if Mercilus is ready for the NFL.
"I think that's a better question for all the scouts. I think Whitney in all honesty needs to stay and get better. Why would you ever short-change yourself? Why wouldn't you want to be better? Why would you just want to throw it out there when you can really be better?"
Corey Liuget, Mikel Leshoure and Martez Wilson all left the team a year early to pursue pro dreams. All were drafted in the first three rounds, but they have all admitted a preference for staying in school and enjoying college football one more year before embarking on football-as-business. Koenning laments what might have been.
"You ask those three guys right now, they would probably be saying what I'm saying. They might be driving nicer cars, but I think all three would say, 'If I had stayed, I might have been better.'
"Martez very easily could have been a Butkus guy. Corey could have been the Bednarik guy. Same for Leshoure. How good would this team be with those three guys right now? There's a lot of things that go unnoticed."
Mercilus hasn't been counseled on his best course of action as yet. That will happen in the next month or two. At this time he's conflicted, given the uncertain future of Illinois football.
"Right now, I'm more worried about what my teammates are thinking. If they want to play in a bowl game, if they don't. We'll see as time goes on."
Would an exciting new head coach make a difference for him?
"That's getting ahead of myself a little bit. I don't really know exactly who's gonna come in. It's putting the cart before the horse. As time goes on, the future will reveal itself."
Whatever he decides, Brown will support him.
"It would be a great plus to have him back next year. But he has a great opportunity in front of him. So whatever his decision is, I'm with him."
Mercilus came out of nowhere to earn the respect of people all over the country. He may not yet be able to appreciate what he has accomplished, but time heals all wounds.
When he has a chance to embrace his most recent honor, he will no doubt consider it a reward for his hard work and perseverence. And his name will be forever engraved in Illini record books.