Illinois' Whitney Mercilus to enter draft

Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft, the school announced on Tuesday.

Mercilus, a consensus first-team All-American, led the country with 16 sacks this season and tied Simeon Rice for Illinois' single-season record. He also broke the Big Ten's single-season record with nine forced fumbles and was ranked second in the country with 22.5 tackles for loss.

"First, I want to congratulate my teammates and coaches for a great win against UCLA in the Fight Hunger Bowl -- it was a great feeling to get back to winning, especially with a defensive performance like we had," Mercilus said in a statement. "With that said, after a lot of prayer and discussion with my family, I have decided the time is right for me to forgo my senior year and enter the 2012 NFL draft.

"I want to thank coach (Ron) Zook, coach (Vic) Koenning, coach (Keith) Gilmore and the entire Illini staff for helping me get to this point. To the entire Illinois community -- students, professors, athletic department and fans -- thank you for all of your support during my time here in Champaign; these have been some of the best times of my life and I will never forget all that this university means to me. Finally, thank you to my teammates -- without you guys, I would not be in the position to make this decision. I have faith that Illinois will rise to the top and I will be there to support you."

Mercilus is the seventh Illinois player in the last five years to enter the draft with eligibility remaining.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.