When outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus hits the field Saturday night against the Panthers, it will be his first game of football in 224 days.
For the Texans' 2012 first-round draft pick, the day can't arrive soon enough.
"I'm pretty excited," Mercilus said. "We finally get away from the camp aspect, and I finally get to strut my stuff on the field."
The last time Mercilus was able to 'strut his stuff' was the final day of 2011. He and Illinois topped UCLA 20-14 in San Francisco at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on New Years' Eve. Mercilus put up numbers befitting a consensus All-American and winner of the Ted Hendricks Trophy, with three tackles for loss to go along with 1.5 sacks.
The journey between then and now included the decision to leave school for the NFL a year early on Jan. 3, the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, the draft and his arrival in Houston as the team's first pick. Add in signing his rookie contract, taking part in OTAs (organized team activities) and mini-camp and two weeks of training camp, and the Texans' youngest player has quite a bit in the last nine months.
Texans left tackle Duane Brown has a bird's-eye view of Mercilus in practice. He's impressed by the strides Mercilus has taken since the start of OTAs in May.
"He's starting to learn a lot, and learn very quickly," Brown said. "The first couple of days, he was a guy that liked to bite on a lot. If you used some crafty vet moves, he'd bite on them. Now he's starting to get a feel for the game and is starting to put a lot of pressure on us."
Brown's analysis jives with what Mercilus' father Wilner said of his son the day after the Texans used the 26th pick in the draft on him. The elder Mercilus promised that his son is a "hard worker," and the type who would only need to be told something once. That attitude, combined with impressive physical attributes, could pay nice dividends for the Texans' defense this year and beyond.
"How quick Whitney comes along, that's how deep our defense will be and how much production we get from those guys rushing the passer," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's got the speed and all those things that we know that he has. He's looked very good."
Although the preseason is sometimes discounted by fans, media and veteran players, Mercilus isn't taking Saturday night's contest lightly. He knows a lot is at stake.
"It's very important, because it shows that you can actually play," Mercilus said. "You're dependable and accountable, definitely, when it comes time for the season. It shows to the coaches that they can trust you in doing the things that are right."
Mercilus' position coach, Reggie Herring, has guided his share of talented linebackers, including Dallas' DeMarcus Ware. Herring is bullish on Mercilus' future, which starts on the field this weekend in Charlotte.
"Whitney is very bright," Herring said. "He has excellent movement skills. That's a kid who has a chance to develop quicker than somebody who's been down in the three-point stance and isn't as good an athlete."
For now, Mercilus isn't worried about the long-term future or where he fits in. He plans to get over the pregame butterflies, which he said will be "huge," and keep things simple against the Panthers.
"Just go out there and make plays," Mercilus said. "Get sacks, make tackles, make tackles for loss. Just the regular stuff."
Based on the Texans' pre-draft evaluations of Mercilus, and what the team has seen through a month of OTAs and two weeks of training camp, the 'regular stuff' will work out just fine for the rookie on Saturday.