Week by week, repetition by repetition, rookie linebacker Whitney Mercilus is adjusting to the NFL.
Mercilus, the Texans' 2012 first-round draft pick, has mainly contributed on special teams in the first month of the regular season. He has played sparingly on defense through three games, earning about 10-12 snaps per week behind Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.
"I just gotta prepare harder week to week," Mercilus said Thursday. "I'm just trying to earn more snaps so that I'm able to help out Connor and Brooks, so they can get some rest."
There is no sense of entitlement with the Illinois product, who led the NCAA with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles as a junior last season. Mercilus didn't get much time on special teams in the preseason, but that changed once the real games began.
"Not playing in the preseason and being his first game playing special teams against Miami in Week 1, he's gotten better and better and better," Texans special teams coordinator Joe Marciano said. "He's very willing. He understands. He just needs more repetitions."
With two special teams tackles last Sunday, Mercilus made his presence felt in the victory at Denver. One memorable hit saw a Broncos returner leap into the rookie's grasp only to be driven quickly into the turf.
"They were trying to do a couple twists or whatever, double blocks or blind-side blocks," Mercilus said. "I was able to read it fast and then kind of juke the guy and get down and make a special hit on the returner. I'm just trying to do more of that and eventually, hopefully I do the same thing in this game."
Mercilus has embraced his role on special teams despite his first-round status and despite leading the Texans with 3.5 sacks in the preseason. And his coaches and teammates have taken notice.
"It's tough; when you're a first-round pick, you're expected to do all that, and it's hard to get on the field for us right now," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's doing his job and he's working hard. The time is coming and our depth will be tested, but he's coming along fine."
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips echoed that, and pointed out that Reed was in a similar situation last year as a rookie.
"Whitney is doing fine," Phillips said. "We're trying to bring him in slowly. We tried to do the same thing with Brooks Reed last year and all of the sudden, he had to play all the time. I think Whitney is getting ready to play, and we'll play him more and more as we go."
Defensive end and captain Antonio Smith, who is also encouraged by Mercilus' potential, agreed that it's just a matter of time.
"He has a lot of upside he has to tap into," Smith said. "The only way you can do that is to get game-time experience. You need game-time experience. You need game reps to learn how to rush. You can't always get it in practice." Those reps will come for Mercilus as this season progresses. In the meantime, the talented rookie will look to make the most of his reps on special teams and limited snaps on defense.