Former Illinois All-American Whitney Mercilus was back in his old stomping grounds last weekend for the Illini Homecoming game against Indiana.
Now an NFL rookie linebacker with the Houston Texans, Mercilus shares the season quarterback sacks record at Illinois (16) with Simeon Rice. He was a unanimous first-team All-American and CFPA Defensive Performer of the Year following the 2011 season.
Orange and Blue News caught up with Mercilus down on the turf at Memorial Stadium before Saturday's kickoff. An Illini through-and-through, Mercilus was excited to be back and have a chance to take in the college game-day atmosphere.
"If feels good," Mercilus said. "I feel like I never left. I love the atmosphere at Illinois. I love the campus. I'm just happy to be back."
Mercilus was an early entry in the 2012 draft, leaving Illinois for the NFL following his stellar junior season. New Illini coach Tim Beckman would love to have a weapon like Mercilus on his defense - a unit that has struggled mightily this season under coordinator Tim Banks.
Beckman was hired last December, replacing long-time coach Ron Zook. Mercilus says he got to know Beckman and the rest of the new staff when they took over the program, and has continued to stay in touch. He's also still tight with his former teammates.
"I talked to the team (Friday) night, and they are my guys," Mercilus said. "I have a close relationship with them. Despite the fact that the season is kind of going awry right now, everyone is still happy and they are just trying to get a win."
Without Mercilus, former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning - a fan favorite - and graduated seniors like linebacker Ian Thomas and cornerback Tavon Wilson, the Illinois defense is allowing 30.8 points per game - last in the Big Ten conference. Fans are wondering what happened to the unit that ranked in the top 10 nationally in 2011 and carried the Illini to 7 wins.
Whatever Illinois is doing now, it's not working and fans want to see progress and competitiveness. Mercilus recommends patience. He has had a chance to talk to the players and coaches at Illinois, and believes the transition to a new a regime and new style is a big reason for the struggles this season.
"It's about adjusting to a new defense, new coach, new teachings and stuff like that," Mercilus said. "A big part of it is finding yourself and doing what is needed of the player. It's going to take a little time."
The Illini have had 8 games to figure things out defensively, and it's tough to see a glimmer of hope with 4 games remaining in the 2012 campaign. No, there are no moral victories. But there was a bit of progress last week against Indiana. Illinois held to the Hoosiers to 372 yards of offense, 70 yards under their season average. Small steps.
If Tim Banks and the Illini defense are going to redeem themselves and give fans some hope for the future, it's going to be on the backs of the leaders on the unit - Michael Buchanan, Jonathan Brown, Akeem Spence, and Terry Hawthorne.
It wouldn't hurt for those guys to sit down and watch some 2011 film of Whitney Mercilus in action.
Mercilus backs up 4-year pro Connor Barwin at WLB in Houston's 3-4 scheme. He has 9 tackles 1 sack and a forced through 7 games as the surprising Texans have started 6-1, tops in the AFC.
Most players transitioning to the NFL talk about the speed and physicality of pro game versus college football. But Mercilus said the toughest part about the NFL for him is the mental aspect.
"It's just the mental game," Mercilus said. "It's not so much that they are bigger, stronger, or faster. It's more of a mind game out there, basically just playing chess."
As a rookie, Mercilus has seen most of his action on special teams. He saw his most significant action on defense in week 7 against the Baltimore Ravens, recording a sack against Joe Flaco and forcing a fumble in the Texans 43-13 win.