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49 in 49: DE Whitney Mercilus

Posted Mar 14, 2012

49ers.com’s pre-draft series continues with a profile on a defensive end coming off a junior campaign where he led the nation in sacks and is now out to prove that he’s not a one-year wonder.

The background of @Merci380’s Twitter page is a photo of the Illinois defensive end forcing a fumble on Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III, the same Baylor prospect considered to be the desired choice of the Washington Redskins, who recently traded up to acquire the No. 2 overall pick previously held by the St. Louis Rams.

Other than a catchy Twitter background, there’s plenty of other striking aspects to Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, one of the top defensive prospects available in the 2012 NFL Draft.

For starters, the 6-foot-4, 261-pound pass rusher led the nation with 16 sacks in 2011, earning him consensus All-American honors along the way.  Mercilus also added nine forced fumbles, displaying a knack for making game-changing plays required by those who play his position at the professional level.

Then there are physical aspects Mercilus offers, ranging from long-limbed athleticism to his own excruciating sacrifice made to the game.

Considering he totaled two sacks in his two previous collegiate seasons, 2011 was quite a merciless year for the Illinois defensive end, who offers position versatility entering the NFL.

Mercilus has a simple explanation for his ascent – it all had to do with timing.

“I just was able to put everything together,” Mercilus explained at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. “I was still learning the game as a redshirt sophomore and a 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.”

After receiving a third-round grade from the NFL’s draft evaluation committee following a win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Mercilus elected to keep his name in the draft pool.

It was a good choice, as ever since he declared, Mercilus has steadily increased his standing throughout the offseason. First, Mercilus ran a 4.68, 40-yard dash and added a 32-inch vertical jump and 27 reps at the bench press to turn heads at the combine. Perhaps, most important of all was Mercilus’ 10-yard split of 1.57 seconds. That alone gave talent evaluators an idea of his closing speed.

Mercilus knows it’s a major strength to his game already.

“I’m able to come off the line pretty quickly,” he said. “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.”
Mercilus followed up an eye-catching combine with another strong showing at his March 6 pro day.

Mercilus’ likely rise up draft boards happens to coincide with the league’s demand for top-end pass rushers. With NFL quarterbacks more likely to throw 40 passes per game, defensive coordinators are examining prospects to find an impact pass rusher.

The 49ers, themselves, solidified that role by selecting Aldon Smith with the No. 7 overall pick in last year’s draft.

Mercilus, himself, somewhat resembles Smith’s long-armed body type, and even wore No. 85 in college just like Smith.

Still, the 2011 first-team All-Big Ten selection has a ways to go to become an impact performer like Smith, who totaled 14.0 sacks as a rookie.  In order to do so, Mercilus participated in both defensive lineman and linebacker drills at his pro day. It was all done to showcase the movement skills needed at the outside linebacker position.

Fortunately for Mercilus, valuing effort has never been a problem. Illinois’ Ted Hendricks Award winner (given to nation’s top defensive end) has always appreciated the merits of hard work.

It started with his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Haiti.

“They worked for everything,” Mercilus detailed. “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.”

At no point was that mindset tested more than after Mercilus suffered a major injury inside of Illinois’ weight room.

A week before Illinois’ 2011 spring game, Mercilus had a 405-pound weight dropped on the tip of his right index finger. The weight crushed his finger and detached the fingertip immediately. 

Despite the bad luck, Mercilus didn’t miss a game.

He lined up in all 13 games and posted 16 sacks, tying an Illinois school record. His nine forced fumbles placed him second all-time in NCAA single-season history, too.

But for those still looking at Mercilus as a one-year performer, the phrase simply doesn’t apply to him in his mind. Mostly because Mercilus feels he can continue the success he enjoyed in 2011.

“There’s no fluke to it – 16 is 16,” Mercilus said. “There’s no way you can just fall onto a sack.”

Beyond rushing the passer, a quick get-off and a passion for working at his craft, Mercilus’ nose for the football, mostly forcing fumbles, sets him apart from other pass rushers in his estimation.

“I just have a knack for it,” Mercilus said. “I just time it up right. Throughout the game I was able to watch the quarterback’s movements and just see him open up and then I just go in there and just knock it away as s oon as I could.”

And he was doing it before 2011, just ask RG3.

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