In 2010, Wisconsin's J.J. Watt went from decent defensive end to All-American and first-round draft pick. Could Illinois' Whitney Mercilus follow the same track? Like Watt, Mercilus had a breakout junior season, leading the nation in both sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9), which marks a Big Ten single-season record and is one shy of the national record. He won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end and has earned first-team All-America honors from nine different publications.
But unlike Watt, whose magical season ended with a trip to the Rose Bowl, Mercilus' individual exploits didn't translate to team success. After a 6-0 start, Illinois dropped its final six games, and then dropped head coach Ron Zook. Tim Beckman has been hired as Zook's replacement, but beloved defensive coordinator Vic Koenning won't be staying with the team. Mercilus soon will face a decision of whether to enter the NFL draft or return for his senior season. He also will take the field with his Illinois teammates Dec. 31 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA.
ESPN.com recently caught up with the Illinois star.
You've been through a lot in the past few weeks. How would you characterize the mood of the team as you get ready for this game?
Whitney Mercilus: Right now, the mood on the team is we're just excited and ecstatic for this game. Winning back-to-back bowl games in back-to-back years, in the history of the university, that's never been done. Also, we want to send out our seniors on a positive note, and our defensive coordinator, coach Vic. And we also want to win this bowl game for our former head coach, coach Zook.
You mention excited and ecstatic. Did it take a while to get there as players, or did you feel that from the start?
WM: It probably took a little while because of everything that was hitting us. Right after that Minnesota game, it was a little chaotic. Our head coach got fired, and a lot of guys were like, 'Wow, can't believe this really happened.' We had a sixth straight loss, and it kind of took a little toll on our mentality. But after that whole deal, after time progressed, we bounced back. We've been practicing now, and we've been practicing great. We're ready to go out to the bowl game and get this W.
As a leader on the team, do you watch to see if guys are motivated or not motivated? Motivation is always a big question mark entering bowls.
WM: Definitely. If they're not motivated, I'll make sure they're motivated. And JB, Jonathan Brown, he's right there with me, always trying to have a little swagger going into practice, no matter what. If there are guys that have been slacking a little bit, we'll go ahead and get on their butts and try to get 'em going.
What was your reaction to hearing coach Koenning wouldn't be back next year?
WM: It was actually kind of shocking because I didn't understand why he wasn't kept with this program. His defenses have been basically phenomenal. He's taken a bunch of defenses from being ranked in the 100s [nationally] to single-digits in the NCAA. It's disappointing, but at the same time, I understand, and I just hope for the best for him.
Have you had a chance to meet with coach Beckman?
WM: I've met with him twice. He's a pretty stand-up guy, definitely. I do want to see how he is as a coach. I haven't gotten to that point yet, but we'll see by next year.
You have a decision to make after the season. Where are you in that process right now? What are the pros and cons for you?
WM: Just information-gathering, basically, getting all the information I can and waiting for my evaluation to come back to see where I'm at. The con would be late second rounder or something like that, third round and under. The pro would be going high in the draft, maybe late first round and being able to work my way up.
So if they tell you first round, would that mean you'd leave?
WM: Yeah. That would probably mean [he'd go]. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I would probably take that chance.
What would be the factors if you chose to return to Illinois? Would it depend on who is hired to coach defense?
WM: Yeah, the decision depends on that a lot. It's important how the defense works, what type of defense it is, because certain defenses work for some. Some don't work for others. That can be a pro or a con either way for me. I don't really know. I hope they'll be able to tell us what DC is going to be coming in and showing us what type of defense he runs. I can make a decision based off that a little bit, and just the feedback from the NFL committee.
Even though the team struggled down the stretch, the defense continued to perform well. How important is it to finish on a strong note as a defense?
WM: It means a lot. We've been playing solid all year long, even when everything was hitting the fan. We just want to show that we can shut out a team. That should have happened this year, and a few costly mistakes gave the opponent a touchdown or two. We just want to shut out UCLA if we can and just prove to ourselves that we're still a stout defense to look out for.