Illinois star Whitney Mercilus going pro

In a move that was widely expected, Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus announced Tuesday that he'll skip his senior year and enter the 2012 NFL draft.

Mercilus came from way under the radar to post an outstanding year. He led the nation with 16 sacks, tying Simeon Rice’s single-season school record, and forced a Big Ten record nine fumbles, second-most in NCAA history. His 22.5 tackles for loss also led the Big Ten. Mercilus won the Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end and was a consensus first-team All-American.

He capped his season with a solid performance in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win against UCLA, recording 1.5 sacks. Mercilus's high motor and instincts for the ball turned him into a star.

Mercilus issued this statement:

“First, I want to congratulate my teammates and coaches for a great win against UCLA in the Fight Hunger Bowl — it was a great feeling to get back to winning, especially with a defensive performance like we had. With that said, after a lot of prayer and discussion with my family, I have decided the time is right for me to forgo my senior year and enter the 2012 NFL draft.

I want to thank coach [Ron] Zook, coach [Vic] Koenning, coach [Keith] Gilmore and the entire Illini staff for helping me get to this point. To the entire Illinois community — students, professors, athletic department and fans — thank you for all of your support during my time here in Champaign; these have been some of the best times of my life and I will never forget all that this university means to me. Finally, thank you to my teammates — without you guys, I would not be in the position to make this decision. I have faith that Illinois will rise to the top and I will be there to support you.”

Mercilus is the seventh Illini player in the last five years to enter the draft early. The previous six all were taken in the first three rounds, including three first-rounders. The latest was defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who was selected by the San Diego Chargers in 2011.

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore had this statement:

“I’m very proud of Whitney for the amount of work he put in to be in this position. He really matured during the season and became a terrific leader not only for the defensive line, but for the entire defense. Whitney had an incredibly productive season and is a great role model for our other players in doing things the right way and putting in the extra effort. The entire Fighting Illini family wishes him nothing but the best as he moves on to the NFL.”

Even though he had only one standout college season, Mercilus' stock was never going to be higher. Leaving for the NFL is the right move, especially as the Illini go through a coaching transition that will include a new defensive coordinator. New head coach Tim Beckman will not only have to right an offense that struggled over the final seven games, he'll have to try and keep the defense at a high level with new assistants. And without the team's biggest defensive star.