Whitney Mercilus arrived at Illinois from Akron, Ohio, as an undersized defensive end. Weighing only 220 pounds, he was overmatched his first couple years. But he has continued to mature within Strength and Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez's rigorous program, and he is happy with his current status.
"I'm a lot stronger than I was as a freshman. I was hitting 205 on the bench then, and I'm hitting about 405 now. Coach Lou makes sure you're not staying at a constant weight."
A solid 260 pounder now, Mercilus is also more experienced at his position and is better able to compete against bigger offensive linemen. He credits defensive line coach Keith Gilmore for his progress.
"I'll do anything for him. He's taught me real well, and I go out there and do it. I go out there to make him proud of me."
Mercilus loves the new defense brought in by coordinator Vic Koenning.
"It's more fun and more aggressive. I get to do a whole bunch of things. I get to slant a little bit more than I used to and give the offensive linemen new looks.
"There are a lot more individual responsibilities. If one person messes up it could shatter the whole defense, so we have to hold together as a whole."
The Garfield High School grad gets more excited about group success than individual success. For him, that starts with the defensive line.
"The group is great. We hold together and stick together tight. If one of us messes up, we hold each other accountable. We have to make sure we function as a unit so that we're in sync and not acting individually. The defense starts with the defensive linemen up front.
That unified concept is applied to the entire defense, but it has taken time to reinforce those principles and get everyone operating on the same page. Koenning utilized group punishment to remind everyone of their combined responsibilities. One day was especially memorable as the entire defense did many up-downs after practice.
"We did close to 93 up-downs. We messed up a couple of plays. It started earlier in the day. One mess-up led to consecutive mess-ups by our secondary, our lineman, and all that. We have to come out every day and be perfect and be aggressive. We've got to be mentally tough and focus on the assignment."
Koenning is trying to build accountabililty.
"That's what we were talking about as a group. If your teammate messes up, hold them accountable for it. If you're held accountable, you won't do it again, and you'll remember the mistake."
Leaders are essential as support for the coaches, helping keep the players unified with common goals. Mercilus says there are several.
The defensive end opposite Nurse and Mercilus is now called a Bandit. Mercilus comments on Michael Buchanan's play at that position.
"It's a big change for him to switch from a traditional defensive lineman stance to a bandit stance. I think he's adjusted very well over the spring."
He also praises Glenn Foster, the former d-end now at tackle.
"He has a huge motor and is very strong. He has to use more technique with 300 pound guys in the middle, but I think he's made a really good adjustment to the position."
A defense can be only as good as the competition it faces daily in practice. Mercilus believes the new offensive system brought in by Paul Petrino is challenging to defend.
"I haven't seen an offense like that in the Big 10 because they come at you with a whole bunch of different schemes and looks with pro-style and wildcat and all kinds of stuff."
One player posing problems for the defense this spring was redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, whose speed and quickness gave the offense an extra dimension.
"Trying to contain Scheelhasse gives us a little bit of a workout, but we've got to get in there and make sure we handle him. His ability to run helps make him a more prolific quarterback.
"You don't see too many of those in the Big 10, especially with his agility. Scheelhasse has given us the look of a running quaterback, so we've been able to work on getting to the quarterback before he runs."
More directly, Mercilus gets the best training from the offensive tackles opposite him. They represent what must be faced each week during the season.
"I like to go up against Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis because they give me the best battles. They come off strong. You have run teams like Michigan State who have big linemen, so you have to be able to deal with that."
Mercilus expects to receive an increased workload this fall, and he is talented enough to handle it.