Leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, one of the biggest questions about Illinois' Whitney Mercilus was whether he was a one-year wonder.
Mercilus led the NCAA with 16 sacks as a junior last season, earning first-team All-America honors en route to becoming the Texans' first-round draft pick. It came seemingly out of nowhere after he redshirted as a freshman in 2008 and was a reserve player for the next two seasons, recording 24 total tackles and two sacks in 24 games.
"Whitney had him in it all along," Illinois defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said on Friday. "He may not have been a starter, but he was a big-time contributor to our program. He played a lot of snaps, and actually, he probably played more than the kid that was a starter. The kid that was in front of him was a senior, and Whitney being the team player that he was kind of understood that situation and waited his time and made the most of it when he got his opportunity."
Gilmore, a 27-year college coaching veteran who tutored Mercilus from 2009-11, readily dismissed the notion that Mercilus could be a one-year wonder.
"I say no way," Gilmore said. "I know the kid. I've coached him for three years. Like I said, he's been a solid football player in this program throughout. In the years previous, he played more on first and second down, and the kid who we had in front of him was more of a pass rusher. To get the most of our football team, that was the way we just decided to play 'em. He was a productive player all along for us. It wasn't a one year deal. This has been a three-year deal in the making."
Mercilus played in 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2009, recording eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. He played in 13 games with two starts as a redshirt sophomore, recording 16 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, one sack, two hurries, two forced fumbles and one pass breakup.
As a redshirt junior, Mercilus moved into the starting lineup and recorded 57 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, nine forced fumbles, six quarterback hurries, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery. He was a team MVP and captain, a consensus first-team All-American and the Ted Hendricks Award winner as the top defensive end in the nation.
"You never realize it during the course of a season how good a kid is, then when you go back and reflect and you look at the tape from the previous year, you realize what a dominant force he was," Gilmore said. "He made a big play or two for us every game, and it really helped us this season.
"The biggest thing is that he's a high-motor kid. He's a relentless pass rusher. Some of his sacks he got may have not been pretty, but just due to his passion to get after the passer resulted in some production for us. He moved around the line of scrimmage for us. He was a team player. We put him down inside at the tackle spot in some passer situations, and he responded. But the biggest thing is that he's a relentless pass rusher and he's got great power in his lower body."
Mercilus, 21, credits his meteoric rise in production last season to hard work off the field.
"It was more of grasping a way to study the game differently," he said. "I studied myself, making sure that my weaknesses become my strengths on the field. Watching my opponent closely, watching film, breaking down offenses and things like that – what they tend to like to do, what type of personnel, what situations and things like that. I feel like just studying the game a lot more really helped my game."
Gilmore says Mercilus got his work ethic from his parents, Wilner and Yvrose, who immigrated to the United States from Haiti in the 1980s.
"They didn't come from a whole lot, but they understood the value of an education and being hard workers," Gilmore said. "They shared that with him, and he carried it over to everything he did.
"He's a guy that's first in line. He's the first at weight training; he's the first out on the field at practice. All those things carry over into performance and production. He's a kid that you can count on."
The Texans are counting on Mercilus to give them another pass rusher to complement Connor Barwin, who Gilmore incidentally coached at Cincinnati in 2008, and Brooks Reed. Mercilus said he has made a smooth transition from defensive end to outside linebacker so far this offseason, and he plans to stay in Houston to train until training camp begins in late July.
"Everybody wonders, am I just a one-year wonder?" Mercilus said. "I say no. In my mind, I think once you have it, you have it. There's no way that you can regress from that. You stay on the same path from what you've always done that year, and you will come out successful.
"This upcoming season, my goals are to get as many sacks as I can – contribute a lot for this team and hopefully make a name for myself in this first year, and prove to everyone why I'm not a one-year wonder."