College Football Performance Awards named Fighting Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus as their Defensive Player Of The Year and presented him with the trophy Sunday at the Illinois basketball game.
Mercilus was grateful for the honor. He displayed it proudly to the basketball crowd, kissing it repeatedly. It was the latest of a long series of awards for the player who went from obscurity to national prominence after a sensational junior season in 2011.
But he was also happy to be back on campus to receive the award.
"It feels great. It definitely brings back old feelings, the good times I had here. I definitely miss the Stadium, all the friends I've had here.
"I miss it all, and I understand why guys like Corey (Liuget) say they miss it so much. It's satisfying to be back here, just kind of sit back and think about all the memories I've had here going through my collegiate career."
He is delaying his final semester of classes to prepare for the upcoming National Football League combine. How he performs for NFL coaches will go a long way toward determining his position in this year's draft. He is not taking anything for granted.
"I'm working out at the Athletes Performance facility down in Arizona. I'm working out with a lot of top athletes like Courtney Upshaw from Alabama and Robert Griffin from Baylor, guys like that. It's definitely a good competition.
"It's a beautiful place. I would love to live down in Arizona, just training there all day if I could. I love working out, and I love the scenery down there.
"I'm improving, working on technique like benching technique and all the other drills they do at the combine. The coaches there see my improvement and think I'm going to do good. I've just got to put in a little more work. It's about three weeks left until it's show time. I can't wait for it.
"They're getting us right down there. We're eating right, recovering our bodies right, making sure we get plenty of rest. Having us be on the right track to blow up this combine."
Mercilus had another year of college eligibility remaining, but he accomplished everything needed to create a strong resume for the pro game. He had an even more pressing reason to enter the draft this year.
"It's an opportunity for me to benefit my family, which was a big thing for me. I didn't come from a home that had a lot of money. Just being able to help around the home, especially with my parents being Haitian immigrants and struggling through life. It's a way for me to give back to my parents, to give them the life that they deserve."
His parents also want him to complete his degree, something he plans on doing in the near future.
"I've talked to my parents and scheduled out a plan so that when it's the off season, go back to school and finish up the four classes I have to finish. Getting that degree is very important to me. I didn't spend four years of college for nothing. The degree is something to fall back on when football is over."
Mercilus worked hard to achieve success on the football field last fall, but leading the nation in sacks and forced fumbles was beyond his wildest dreams. The post season became a whirlwind of surprises for him. Has he had time for it all to sink in?
"Everything hit me 100 mph before. It's definitely slowed down a bit, but it's going to be picking back up here in the next few weeks.
"It's going to be kind of like a roller coaster, but it's definitely a time to enjoy because it's an opportunity that happens only once in a lifetime, and not for very many. You've got to sit back and smell the roses at some point and enjoy the process."
He hadn't been gone long from campus, but he appreciated being back.
"It feels great. It definitely brings back old feelings, the good times I had here. I definitely miss the Stadium, all the friends I've had here. I miss it all, and I understand why guys like Corey (Liuget) say they miss it so much. It's satisfying to be back here, just kind of sit back and think about all the memories I've had here going through my collegiate career."
He has maintained contact with some of his college buddies, especially those preparing for the NFL combine.
"I've talked to a few teammates like Jeff Allen and Tavon (Wilson). We don't talk so much about what to expect at the combine, we are just motivated to see each other again. We've been texting each other and motivating each other each day to keep on progressing.
"We have that fighting spirit in us since we've been here at the University of Illinois. We're just a band of brothers who want to represent the University of Illinois in the draft."
Mercilus has heard a variety of opinions on where he might go in the draft, but there is still plenty of confusion.
"I'm not getting much of a read. A lot of teams are interested right now. Basically, we just have to see what happens after the combine."
Mercilus is as ambitious as he is talented. One of his motivations is to prove he can have a long career and not just be a flash in the pan.
"I have a lot of personal goals for the combine. I'll try to run the best 40 I can, 4.6 or maybe high 4.5, something like that. On the bench (press), I'm trying to get somewhere around the high 20s, maybe even 30 (repetitions of 225 pounds).
"I set really high goals. I want to impress everybody, so there would be no discussion left about being a one-year wonder."