While NFL scouts must decide if Whitney Mercilus is an every-down talent who deserves a high draft slot, Mercilus transformed himself into an NFL prospect after a slow start to his career.
CHAMPAIGN -- Former Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus had one nickname last season.
His Illini teammates called him "Nubs" after Mercilus lost the tip of a finger in a weight room accident a little more than a year ago. But after winning the Hendricks Award as the nation's top college defensive end following breakout junior season last fall, he's been called a One-Year Wonder.
"I think it's a negative label,'' Mercilus said. "Once you're able to produce like that and put it all together, you know you'll be able to repeat that success.''
While NFL scouts must decide if Mercilus is an every-down talent who deserves a high draft slot, Mercilus transformed himself into an NFL prospect after a slow start to his career. The son of Haitian immigrants, Mercilus didn't play the game until high school and didn't excel until late in his prep career.
With the NFL draft beginning Thursday, Mercilus is expected to go in the middle to late in the first round. Meanwhile, receiver A.J. Jenkins and offensive tackle Jeff Allen could go by the end of the draft's third round Friday.
After two quiet seasons with the Illini, Mercilus led the nation last season with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles to show he's got game.
"Once you have it, you have it,'' Mercilus said.
The 6-foot-3, 261-pound Mercilus has also been critiqued as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme as scouts and player personnel departments attempt to slot him into the lineup. With such a short window of high-level play, Mercilus is still a tough case study.
"Mercilus has an athletic physique and has good initial quickness off the snap,'' said Pro Football Weekly's Adam Anshell. "Mercilus has great closing speed and flashes power potential. His negatives include average length, weight-room strength and physicality.''
PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki said Mercilus "could be a workout warrior who is overdrafted.'' But Mercilus made friends in the Illini locker room.
"I think for sure he's a first-round pick,'' said Allen. "His best football is ahead of him.''
Mercilus planned on watching the draft in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, with his parents, Wilner and Yvrose. The family will also use Skype to connect with extended family in Haiti.
"My parents worked hard for everything,'' he said. "They broke their backs through the years to put food on the table. (Jumping to the NFL) was a way to help my family financially. I didn't come from a background where I had money.
"They've worked so hard all their lives. Now it's my turn to take care of them.''
According to ESPN, Allen was one of the 10 players moving fastest up the board. Allen is a Chicago Bears fan and wouldn't mind staying close to home.
"It's a whole business process,'' Allen said. "Whatever team takes me will be my new favorite team.''
Jenkins went from coast to coast during the interview process.
"I did like a world tour,'' he said. "You have to be patient, be polite and be happy.''
ESPN Scouts Inc. ranked former Illini Derek Dimke as the No. 1 placekicker in the draft while ESPN analyst Mel Kiper put him as the fourth-best, but Dimke knows he might end up signing a free-agent contract. In the past two drafts combined, only one kicker was taken.
NOTE: Illinois' game against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 22 was set for a 7 p.m. kickoff on BTN. It was the only game scheduled for prime time on the league's network.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.
NFL draft schedule
Round 1, 7 p.m.
Rounds 2-3, 5 p.m.
Rounds 5-7, 11 a.m.