Whitney Mercilus is not yet completely comfortable with the limelight, but he's getting there. At least, he's had plenty of practice talking to the media as he continues receiving honors for his outstanding play for the Illinois football team this season. He was given the Ted Hendricks Award as the top defensive end in the nation.
Mercilus earned this award. He leads the country in sacks, sacks per game and forced fumbles. He is also 6th nationally in tackles for loss per game. That is quite a feat for the unassuming junior from Akron, Ohio.
"This is a great award to be recognized for, and I'm grateful for it. There are a lot of great players out there, and I just happen to be involved. It's been a blessing."
Mercilus was quick to credit the Illini coaches who have influenced his career, from his recruiting coach Eric Wolford to his two defensive line coaches and his strength coach.
"It's got to be Coach (Keith) Gilmore, Coach Wolford, Coach (Tom) Sims and definitely Coach Lou (Hernandez). The work ethic, the type of people they are.
"I could hang around them all day. It inspired me to work harder for them. They encouraged me all the time to do my best and work harder, give that extra energy. That's the type of mentality I've had the whole time."
And he had to mention former Illini head coach Ron Zook, whose dismissal last week was a serious blow to the deep-feeling star.
"He was the head coach who recruited me, and I've known him for some time, my whole life basically. Great guy, great guy. He supports his players all day. There's no other guy like him; I could say that for sure.
"Last week I was down in the dumps and didn't want to do any interviews. It's like breaking up with your girl friend. You have a little heartbreak."
Mercilus had an excellent spring, until the final week. A heavy weight fell on his index finger, mashing the end of it. He lost the tip of the finger, but fears he might lose much more proved unfounded. That accident was relatively minor and had no long-term effect on his play. But he said it was important to him nonetheless.
"I feel the finger was a wakeup call. After that, I got a little weaker over the summer. But I built my strength back up. I said, "I'm not going out like this." (I wanted to) be a dominant player. Dominate the workouts and see where the season goes. Obviously, there's been improvement."
That goes without saying. Losing six games in a row and then their head coach was hard for the Illini to accept, but Mercilus says he and his teammates are now focused on winning the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.
"You've got to bounce back. That's what we did. The spirit and morale are back up right now, and we're looking forward to this bowl game."
Mercilus still will not talk about any hope he might have of leaving school a year early to pursue a pro career. He will think about that in earnest in January.
"We're going with the flow right now. Coach Vic (Koenning) is doing a great job. We're just taking it one day at a time. I just want to concentrate on the bowl game and see what happens."
Mercilus was asked what he will do with the Hendricks trophy.
"The trophy will be here at the University. It shows we've got a lot of potential here."