Whitney Mercilus led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles in 2011 playing defensive end for the Illinois football team. He became a consensus All-American and decided to turn pro with a year of eligibility remaining. He was rewarded with that decision by being selected #26 by the Houston Texans. To say the least, he was thrilled by developments.
"When my name was called, it was a dream come true. I was super excited. I didn't expect to drop that far, but being picked up by the Houston Texans made me happy. I'm going South into warm weather to do what I love to do."
There were indications he might go higher than he did. He was the sixth defensive end picked, so there were a few scary moments.
"I got nervous when I didn't go in slot 19 with the Bears. I was hoping I wouldn't drop out of the first round. I would be disappointed not to be picked the first day. But when the Houston Texans called me, I was excited. I can't wait to go to work."
Mercilus was not highly recruited out of high school. His dreams of a possible professional career came more recently.
"It's crazy. I really didn't think about it back in high school. I was lucky to get a scholarship to any college. I made the best of my opportunities in college. It paid off in 2011."
The 6'-3", 264 pounder worked hard his entire career at Illinois, and he redoubled his efforts last spring and summer. He literally came out of nowhere to excel in his only year as a starter.
"It's been kind of an uphill battle. I proved my worth with a great 2011 season. And I improved my draft stock through the Combine and also Pro Timing Day. I worked hard in Arizona the last few months. I felt like it paid off today."
With senior teammate wide receiver A.J. Jenkins being selected #30 in the first round, the Illini have now had five first round draft picks in the last five years. Mercilus used that realization to brag about his school and its football future.
"Illinois always has talent. And it's just gonna keep on coming. I'm definitely looking for big things next year. With our defense and our offense, I have no doubt in my mind that Illinois will not stop producing first round talent."
He was as happy for Jenkins as himself.
"I was excited. For him to make the first round with me, that was really exciting. I jumped up in excitement for him.
"It's amazing how he's taken his draft stock to a whole new level thanks to the impressive combine that he did. I'm glad he's playing on San Francisco's team and glad that he went in the first round. I have no doubt he will be working hard for the next few years to come."
The Texans need to replace star defensive end Mario Williams.
"That's a great player, and those are big shoes to fill. It's a matter of working really hard and proving my worth. When I go there on Day 1, I want to prove to them that they spent their money well on me."
Next stop is Houston Friday.
"I'll be going down to Houston, Texas, to meet the fans there and get acquainted with the city. See what it will be like for the rest of my life."
Mercilus will be an outstanding representative of the University of Illinois throughout his pro career and the rest of his life.