Whitney Mercilus arrived at Illinois as an undersized defensive end. He was always tenacious and aggressive, but he lacked the size and strength to compete against 300 pound offensive linemen. That is no longer the case.
"I'm 265 now. It feels real good. I'm trying to maintain my speed, and I'm still trying to adjust to the body. But overall I feel good."
After spending time behind first Doug Pilcher and then Clay Nurse, Mercilus is ready to ascend to a starter's role. He admits happiness about it.
"Yeah, it does feel good. There's a lot of expectations, I know that. I'm not gonna get my head all wrapped up around it. I'll work the best I can though."
The Akron, Ohio, product sees the big picture and recognizes turnover is normal on a football team. While he respects those who have graduated, he's ready to take a more leadership role.
"The senior leaders would get you motivated, but each year you lose somebody. You've got to have new leaders step up. That's what we're doing right now."
However, seeing himself as one of the "older guys" is an adjustment.
"It's definitely a lot different. It's kind of weird, actually. I would never think I would be filling these shoes that Clay, Pilcher, all the guys before wore."
Younger players look to him for advice.
"I definitely get a lot questions. I'm trying to teach them to try to play technique, know what different looks to look for. In my experience from the games, you get a whole variety of looks."
"It's a competition. Whoever the best man is wins, you know. I'm still competing with Glenn, T.K. and D.J. Woods. So you can't rest."
Mercilus is grateful the Illinois defense is using the same basic schemes again this year. New things are added, but it helps to be familiar with the overall concept.
"The defensive schemes are pretty much the same as last year. There's a lot more to process, so we just have to keep reading keys."
Mercilus prefers talking about the defense as a whole rather than himself. He is working hard to help it become an outstanding team in 2011.
"We're family, we love each other. Definitely. So I feel like we're gonna be the best d-line. At least that's what we're gonna try to aim for."
Last season, injuries and a lack of depth caused problems for the defense. But there is extra confidence that was earned from last year's wars.
"Definitely. Having the experience from the younger guys coming over. And the older guys coming in with new coaches and a new defense now coming off a bowl game. So we're used to it now."
He is also buoyed by the addition of Craig Wilson, who came over this spring from offense to play defensive tackle.
"It's exciting. We wanted him over last year, but we finally got him. He's progressing real good right now. All he has to do is work on a couple of things. I think he's gonna be really good."
Mercilus smashed a finger in a weight room accident and missed the last week of spring ball. He is expected to be healthy by fall. He and his teammates have high goals for 2011, especially after experiencing a bowl win last season.
"Definitely. I want to go to the BCS."