Will Overstreet was a true freshman on that same team who stepped up when UT's D-line depth was depleted. During his four years at Tennessee, Overstreet was often the motor that made Tennessee's defense roar.
Merrill appears to have some traits in common with both Ratliff and Overstreet, and since the Vols will likely graduate the entire starting defensive line for a second straight year, he would be a most welcomed addition to their roster.
A senior defensive end at Diberville High School, Merrill recorded 85 tackles last season with 14 sacks and a dozen deflections. As a sophomore, he had 75 tackles and 13 sacks. But it was during his freshman season that Merrill first distinguished himself as a potential star, despite not joining the team until late in the campaign.
Less than 24 hours after his junior high career came to an end, Merrill was promoted to the varsity ranks. He didn't play in the first half of his first game but oh what a difference he made in the second half.
"We finished our season in the ninth grade and the game was on a Thursday night and then the high school played on Friday night," Merrill said. "I didn't play in the first half and there were about four seniors at the defensive tackle. We alternated a lot of players at defensive tackle. The first play I played I got in the backfield like quick and they played me the rest of the game."
Merrill's intrusions into the enemy backfield continued that night as he chalked up 10 tackles in a single half and earned Defensive Player of the Week honors. He also earned the starting job at defensive tackle for the last three games of the season.
"I was chubbier a lot wider then," Merrill said of his 260-pound physique. "I've always been confident and I've always been able to run even when I was chubby like that. I could run like a five-flat. I always wanted to play college ball, but I never figured I would."
After his freshman season was completed, Merrill suffered an illness that resulted in a dramatic weight loss of some 50 pounds. Once he recovered, he set about the task of rebuilding his body from the ground up and became addicted to weight training.
"As a ninth grader after football season I got sick and lost like 50 to 60 pounds," he said. "When I started the 10th grade I got kind of obsessed with working out and building myself up. It really worked out for the best. I was mad because I was so weak. In the spring game I was pitiful, really skinny, so I was determined to make myself bigger and stronger."
Merrill's objective got a boost from mother nature as he underwent a vertical growth spurt that combined with his strength training turned him into lean, mean pass-rushing machine. Today he bench presses 380 pounds, power cleans 300 and runs a respectable 4.82 time in the 40. He also moved from defensive tackle to end, but he knows a move back to tackle is a possibility in college.
""It's just how my body grows, but colleges are recruiting me as a defensive end," he said. "I could go both ways but I want to play defensive end because I don't like playing defensive tackle."
With the success Merrill has had at defensive tackle it's little wonder that he doesn't want to move again. He has terrorized offensive tackles and given quarterbacks nightmares with his ability to use both speed and power off the edge. Noted for an outstanding rip move, Merrill uses a variety of speed techniques to get to the tackle's inside shoulder and the shortest route to the passer.
His value to the defense has limited his play on offense, but he could see some duty in the offensive line this season.
"I might have to play a little center," he said. "I don't like playing offense but I do whatever the team needs me to do."
Although he is only playing defense, Merrill is constantly involved in the game and only wishes he could play more. The irony is that the better he plays on defense the fewer snaps he gets because the offense is forced out on downs.
"I'm pretty quiet on the field but I get pumped if I make a big play or a teammate makes a big play, like if we score on defense or offense," he explained. "It don't matter I get pumped on the field. I go full speed all game because you can only play one way in my opinion. I don't have any excuse to be tired on the field only playing defense. I hate going to the sideline. I love playing. I'd like to stay out there the whole game."
Although Merrill strikes fear in the hearts of opponents, it is fear that drives him to be as good as he is on the gridiron.
"I was scared the first time I ever walked out on a high school field," he admitted. "I like that. Some people say you can't play with fear, but fear of an opponent is one thing fear of failure is something else. A fear of failure can drive you."
One such example could be found in the last regular season game of his junior year when he recovered from an unproductive first half in which he failed to record a single tackle to finish the game with 13 tackles and four sacks.
"In the first half the coaches were making me play run the whole game because they liked running to my side, but they didn't run to my side the first half," he said, shades of frustration still apparent. "I had to close down on the tackle and he was huge, so by the time I closed down on the tackle my pass rush was spent. At halftime I told the coach: ‘just let me go. I want to go after him.' Then on the third play of the second half I had a sack, then I had another sack and got four that game."
Against Picayune, one of the strongest teams in the state, Merrill fought through triple teams the entire night to finish with eight tackles.Then there was the game against South Jones when he was matched up with a behemoth at tackle.
"Against South Jones I faced a guy like 6-6, 325 and I destroyed him the whole game," Merrill recalled. "I like watching film of that game most because of the opponent."
With his combination of size, speed and strength, Merrill is attracting attention from schools all over the nation. He has offers from every school in the SEC except Vanderbilt and many of the major powers beyond the region. Both Mississippi and Mississippi State will be strong contenders for his services as will LSU. Tennessee could have an edge because Merrill has closely followed the Vols since their 1998 championship season.
"When I was about eight grade I think they won the national championship," he recalled. "My best friend is just obsessed with Tennessee. I mean he's a fanatic. He's crazy about Tennessee, everything on his walls is Tennessee. I started liking them a lot. That's where we always wanted to play ball. It was like a dream to play college, but I love watching Tennessee play. I love their program, but there's a lot of things I want to look into."
Merrill, who carries a 3.1 grade point average, went to football camp at Ole Miss this summer and has paid unofficial visits to both LSU and Mississippi State.
"I know I'm going to take an official visit to Tennessee," he said. "I know I'm going to Florida. I don't know if I'm going to LSU. I've been there and I know what they have to offer me. I'll probably go up to South Carolina too and I might go to Notre Dame just because I want to see the campus."
Merrill is rated the nation's No. 10 defensive tackle prospect by The Insiders.