Mercilus leads new trio of Illini defensive stars

Last season, much of the attention on Illinois’ defense was focused on three players — Martez Wilson, Corey Liuget and Nate Bussey — and with good reason, as all three went on to be drafted into the NFL. But there was another player, just a sophomore, who stood out even more by the end of the season: defensive end Whitney Mercilus.

“Like I said earlier in the year, when you guys were worrying about who we lost, Whitney was a guy that was our best defensive end last year at the end of year,” head coach Ron Zook said. “And he’s continued to improve and get better.”

Now six games into this season, Mercilus has done “exactly what (the coaches) thought he was going to do.” And while this performance was expected from the coaching staff, few others would have guessed that Mercilus would lead the conference in tackles for a loss and forced fumbles, and that his eight and a half sacks would be nearly twice as many as any other Big Ten player.

Against Indiana, Mercilus racked up three sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown by cornerback Tavon Wilson.

“It’s time for Whit to do that,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “Whitney’s a fantastic person and developing into a good leader. I’m happy for him.”

But Mercilus isn’t the only Illinois defensive lineman making waves. Bandit Michael Buchanan has also developed into one of the Big Ten’s best pass rushers, trailing only Mercilus in the conference with four and a half sacks and ranking fifth with seven tackles for loss.

“A lot of confidence,” Buchanan said of what he’s gained the last few weeks. “But we just feel like we need to keep working. We all know we can get better, we all know the defense still hasn’t played it’s perfect game. … We still haven’t played to our potential yet, but we’re feeling pretty good right now.”

While Buchanan continues to look for that “perfect game” from the defense, he, along with Mercilus and sophomore defensive tackle Akeem Spence, forms one-third of what has become a formidable trio for opposing offensive lines.

“(Mercilus) and Mike Buchanan and Akeem Spence are three guys that are going to have to step to the table for us to keep going,” Koenning said.

Koenning also said he, along with the rest of the coaching staff, are going to continue to do their part to make sure the defense doesn’t get complacent after some early success.

“Our guys on defense, I think they truly understand we have their best interest at heart,” Koenning said. “We’re coaching the mess out of them. We’re trying to get them better. And sometimes they do better and sometimes they don’t. It’s just like your own kids, sometimes. You don’t love them less, it’s just part of the maturation process. We gotta get some guys to mature.”