Whitney Mercilus was credited with 1.5 tackles for loss against Northwestern. He had been seeing spot minutes previously, but that performance was a breakthrough for him.
"It felt great. First time being a freshman in these games, and I'm excited. It gets my spirits up."
To what does he attribute his improvement?
"I've just been working hard at practice. That's all it is. I'm putting the time in, and it's paying off in the games."
Confidence is essential in football. Mercilus' confidence has increased noticeably since the spring and even Camp Rantoul.
"Yeah, I am because no matter what, I'm just gonna keep working hard. All the hard work is gonna pay off."
It is difficult to simulate gameday action during each week's preparations. After experiencing the speed of live action for himself, he realizes the need to duplicate that in practice.
"I've learned the value of practicing fast. In practice, it can be slow sometimes. So you've got to play fast like you're playing in the games."
Mercilus also understands the importance of film study.
"I've learned that not everybody is the same. You have to read and study their tendencies, what they do. They could be a waist-bender, so you can use push-pull. You've just got to watch film and study mentally."
Defensive ends need to be excellent pass rushers. Learning how to get past rangy, large and mobile offensive tackles is imperative.
"I've learned things like using speed and using my hands alot. Hands is a big thing to get separation."
A graduate of Garfield High School in Akron, Ohio, Mercilus enrolled early and went through spring ball last year. He was known as a tenacious defender, but he was undersized. His high school ratings reflected that.
"I really don't pay attention to the critics. I just do my thing. I came in early at about 220-225, and I've put on a lot of good weight, not sloppy weight. Lou had me trying to get my weight up with protein shakes, lifting weights hard. And I just blew up."
He weighed 240 in the spring, but intense summer workouts helped him grow more.
"I jumped up to 260 now. I feel good, look good, and I'm running great. Lou (Coach Hernandez) really gets with it with the guys with the weights, so I'm grateful for that.
"All summer the weight room was filled. Everyone was using 4 or 5 plates. It was crazy man. It's a motivator. You've got to get stronger, you've got to get faster. So you have to keep on constantly putting in the work."
"Getting that experience right now will help out next year. It's a good start, but there's a lot of competition. This job is up for grabs, and whoever plays the best is gonna take that job."
The humble Mercilus refuses to take his situation for granted. He has a good shot at a starting job next year alongside upcoming senior Clay Nurse, but he respects the young players competing with him.
"There's a lot of guys that's really good. Glenn Foster. Mike Buchanan is speedy. He's young but has good technique most of the time. So I'm not the only one trying to get in there."
Illinois coach Ron Zook has noticed Mercilus' growth during the season.
"He really is. He's getting better, and he's getting a lot of playing time, him and Michael Buchanan. He's gonna be a pretty good player."