“Startling” is the word often used to describe Whitney Mercilus’ 2011 season at Illinois – his junior season. “Puzzling” is another word that comes up during discussions of the 6-foot-4, 261-pound pass-rusher.
It starts with whether Mercilus is a rush-end, or an outside linebacker. It continues with how a guy who produced two sacks in his first two seasons could suddenly lead the nation with 16 – not to mention nine forced fumbles.
“Crazy numbers for one year,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “Which begs the question: Where were you before then?”
But that’s just the beginning of questions that have been attached to Mercilus, whose parents were born in Haiti.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds and did 27 reps with 225 pounds in the bench press. But, Mayock said, “On tape, he can struggle at the point of attack.”
Mayock also called Mercilus “a natural edge rusher,” but in the next breath added, “The biggest concern is you draft him in the first round, how many snaps are you going to get out of him?”
Speaking of questions, Mercilus also came off as a natural while fielding them from reports at the combine:
Q: How do you explain the spike in your sack total last season?
A: “I just was able to put everything together. I was still learning the game as redshirt sophomore and redshirt freshman. Just last year, studying myself more, seeing what I do best and just put it all together for the 2011 season. I broke out last season.”
Q: Did you surprise yourself?
A: “In the beginning, I did. It was just due to work. That’s all it was. That’s all I have to credit it to. I can’t say that I’m surprised. But it just happened – I made it happen.”
Q: What sets you apart as a pass-rusher?
A: “I come off the line. I have a good first step. I’m able to come off the line pretty quickly. Definitely I’m able to wear out players, too. I have a never-ending motor, and I’m able to keep going until the fourth quarter until somebody is dog tired and just take advantage of them.”
Q: What influence have your parents had on you?
A: “My parents are Haitian immigrants. I can’t give you a dateline of when they came here or anything like that, but they worked for everything. They broke their backs throughout the years just to put food on the table for me, my brother and my sister. They just instilled those values in us and just to work hard, never give up at anything in life and just keep pushing forward and go for great things. It definitely happened.”
Q: What factors weighed in your decision to enter the draft early?
A: “This has been a passion all my life to definitely play at the next level. But also it was a way to help my family financially, because I didn’t come from a background where I had money just laying out there that I could use. It was a way just to help them out and provide them with a life that they deserve because they’ve worked so hard for all their life. Now it’s my turn to take care of them.”