All-America Honors 1st Of Many For Mercilus

Another day, another honor for Fighting Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Today he was named to the AFCA FBS Coaches' All-America first team. The Akron, Ohio, native had no idea he would have this much success during his college career. But after leading the nation in sacks and forced fumbles, the honors bestowed upon him now are inevitable.

Speaking after the announcement of the first of what will likely be numerous All-America honors, Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus admits he had no such expectation when he first arrived on the Illini campus.

"No, not at all. In my mind, I thought I was a pretty good player, but not good enough to get to the All-American spot. There's a lot of good players out there that are deserving of the award too. I'm just glad to have the bragging right of All-American."

Illini defensive coordinator and interim head coach Vic Koenning praised Mercilus for consistency and dedication to his responsibilities.

"Whitney is a great lesson in doing what you're supposed to do and things come to you. We have guys who will freelance on you, and it's cost them. And it's cost the team.

"Whitney has been 'Steady Eddie' and has done what he's asked to do. When the guys were conditioning, he was in the front of the line most of the time. Nobody practiced harder than he did the last week of the season.

"I'm not saying he's DeMarcus Ware (Dallas Cowboy linebacker), but I will say that's the things that DeMarcus Ware did. He was always the first one, he was the guy you could always count on to make sure he practiced hard and did things right. In that respect, there's a lot of similarities."

Mercilus agrees he fits the nickname Koenning gave him.

"I try to do what my coaches want me to do. Know my assignments, know where I need to be all the time, have a good grasp of my responsibilities. I've tried to build on the coaches' trust."

Unlike a week ago, when numerous Illini players were discouraged about the season's end and the firing of their head coach, Mercilus says he and his teammates are looking forward to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and especially the challenge of playing UCLA in a warmer climate.

"It's awesome, definitely. It's in somewhere warm. It could have been a better bowl, but it gives us another opportunity to make things right for the season and bring home a win. That's something that hasn't been done here, winning back-to-back bowl games. If we could get that, that would be amazing.

"Our spirits are up. We're looking forward to the bowl game. UCLA is another Pac-12 team, and we can prove we can play against them. Prove that our team is not a fluke."

The bowl game also gives Mercilus a chance to get the two sacks he needs to break Simeon Rice's season sack record at Illinois.

"That's a target goal of mine, setting a record. Hopefully we win the bowl game, but that would be a great destiny also."

The Akron, Ohio, product is still uncomfortable talking about a possible early exit from college to enter the NFL draft. But he realizes he must eventually make that decision.

"I still have plenty of time to think about that. It's definitely coming down the road. Eventually I will have to make that decision. I'll talk to the coaches and see what they think, and I'll contact Coach (Ron) Zook to see where he stands. I've filed papers with the NFL. We'll just have to wait to see what they say."

There is a chance the Illini will be using a different defensive scheme next year. He admits that might affect his NFL decision, but adaptability has value also.

"Vic's defense fits everybody because it's equally balanced. If a new defensive coordinator comes in, we will have to see what kind of defense he has run before. It could be (part of the decision), but even if I go to the next level, I'll still have to learn a new defense."

Mercilus, who is on line to graduate next May, admits getting to play another year with Coach Vic would be a positive benefit of staying another year. He sang Koenning's praises, hoping he would be retained on the staff.

"I'm not saying I'm gonna be leaving or anything like that, but I would love to play under Vic. I don't want to see him go. I love him to death, everyone on the defense loves him to death. He has good morale and character, and it would be good for a lot of our players if he were kept on here."

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