- Jeff Dickerson, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli were in attendance when the club traveled to the University of Illinois campus to work out former Fighting Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus on March 12, six days after the school held its official pro day for NFL scouts.
ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock draft has the Bears selecting Mercilus in the first round at No. 19.
"The persona I got from Lovie was a guy who was all about business, but he's really chilled and laid back," Mercilus told ESPNChicago.com on Friday. "He seems to be a players' coach, really cool and easy to talk to. But I also get the persona that he's a guy who is passionate about this game. He definitely has kept a close eye on everything that has happened in the draft and is (focused) on who to draft and who fits in their system. A guy who loves to handle business also, and wants to win.
"Working with (Marinelli), he's definitely everything that I expected out of a defensive line coach, to push me hard. He's easy to talk to and is somebody who is going to help you improve in this game."
After two relatively quiet years for the Illini, Mercilus exploded last season when he led the nation in sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9). The 6-4, 261-pound pass rusher also registered 22.5 tackles for a loss in his third and final season at Illinois. A consensus All-American selection, Mercilus was the recipient of the 2011 Ted Hendricks Award, handed out annually to the best defensive end in the country.
Smith made no secret of his desire to upgrade the Bears' pass rush in the offseason. Perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers led the team with 11 sacks in 2011, but was the only member of the unit to reach double-figures in the category. Fellow starting defensive end Israel Idonije, who the team recently re-signed to a one-year contract, tallied five sacks. The other defensive ends currently on the roster are 2010 fourth-round draft choice Corey Wootton, veteran Chauncey Davis and Thaddeus Gibson.
"That would be awesome (to play on the Bears veteran defense)," Mercilus said. "That's a seasoned defense with elite guys, veterans. Definitely there would be high expectations for me to come into that program. I would love to try and live up to those expectations and prove myself to them."