Illinois defensive end Mercilus joins Texans
Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was sold on Whitney Mercilus' one spectacular season at Illinois.
The 6-foot-3, 261-pound Mercilus promises there are more where that came from.
Houston used the 26th pick in the first round on the Mercilus, and the projected outside linebacker officially joined his new team Friday. Mercilus was a defensive end in the Illini's 4-3 alignment, but he's confident he can make a quick and easy transition to a new position in Phillips' 3-4 scheme.
''I think I've proven myself to move well in space during the combine and also at my pro day,'' Mercilus said. ''I'm here to contribute and be a part of something great here.''
Mercilus was an early entry junior, and has already graduated from Illinois. He led the nation in sacks with 16 and forced nine fumbles last season, helping Illinois make a dramatic turnaround on defense. Phillips said that if Mercilus had played another college season, he would've been a top-5 pick next year.
''A lot of people are saying, ''Yeah, it's only one year,''' Phillips said. ''But to me, when a guy shows he can do all those things, I don't think he's going to lose that.''
Mercilus vows to prove he's not a ''one-year wonder.''
''The thing is, I got it last year,'' Mercilus said. ''When I was given the opportunity to be the starter, I took advantage of it and definitely broke out in 2011. Now, coming up to this level, I feel like I can do the same things. I'm going to prove my worth and get started right away to prove those negative stereotypes wrong.''
The Texans weren't desperate for defensive help after ranking second in the league overall (285.7 yards per game) and sixth in sacks (44) last season. But career sacks leader Mario Williams bolted for Buffalo when free agency began, creating a need for another pass-rusher.
''That's what we're looking for and that's why he's here,'' Phillips said. ''People talk about `one-year wonder,' and I know he's heard that a million times already.
''We know what he can do and we know the type of person he is and the kind of worker he is,'' Phillips said, ''so all those things, the arrow is pointing up.''
The Illini finished seventh nationally in defense last season (286.15 yards per game) and 15th in scoring defense (19.62 points per game). Mercilus helped Illinois rank sixth nationally in sacks per game (3.15) and his forced-fumble total was a Big Ten record.
''When you're in the game, it's just having a knack for it,'' Mercilus said. ''When the coach tells you, `We need to get the ball out,' you can't really foresee it coming. It's just a knack you have to have, just to get in there and knock the ball away.''
Houston used its first-round pick last year on Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, who shined last season as a starter. Watt had 5 1/2 sacks and two fumble recoveries in the regular season, then intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in the Texans' playoff win against Cincinnati.
Phillips said measuring Watt against Big Ten competition last year helped the Texans evaluate Mercilus before this draft.
''J.J. was more of a lineman, (Mercilus) is more of a linebacker,'' Phillips said. ''But that kind of competition certainly helps you. They've got great players in the league (the Big Ten) that are all being drafted, or are going to be drafted sooner or later.''
Before his breakthrough season, Mercilus played in the 2010 Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium. He forced a fumble on Robert Griffin in the Illini's 38-14 win over Baylor.
''I remember that game against Baylor and that was a great moment,'' Mercilus said. ''That's when I started to see that I had the potential to reach over the top and that's when I made my way to transition at the next level. It was just a matter of hard work after that.''