SAN FRANCISCO — Bob Sax saw it coming. Only not this soon.
The Akron Garfield football coach always knew Whitney Mercilus had unique talents. Gifts you can't coach or teach. Combined with an off-the-charts work ethic and a humble personality, Mercilus was destined for greatness, Sax said.
"I'm not surprised at all," Sax said. "The only thing that surprised me is I didn't think he would do that this year.
"I told everyone when he left, if he sticks around for his fifth year, he'll be the guy that everyone's talking about."
Mercilus didn't play football until his freshman year in high school. Halfway through his junior season, he became a force. And followed that with an "amazing senior year."
"He's a great person," Sax said. "I don't know if I've ever met a more mature, down-to-earth kid who is willing to put in whatever work it takes to make himself better. There's no limit to what he can do."
The trend continued in college. He redshirted as a freshman and saw limited time his first two seasons on the field. Going into the season, Mercilus had two career sacks and 24 tackles. Then, bam, he became a force again. Just like Sax predicted.
Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (14.5), forced fumbles (nine) and early entry to the NFL speculation (constant). Everybody's All-American won the Ted Hendricks Award, the first national trophy for an Illini since Kevin Hardy earned the Butkus 16 years ago.
"In the beginning of the season, I didn't expect to do any of this," Mercilus said. "I thought I was a decent player. I thought I would get a couple of sacks here and there. Accumulating 14 1/2 sacks and getting invited to the Nagurski Award (as a finalist), that was amazing.
"Sometimes I've got to take a minute and reflect on everything, just soak it all in. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I've got to have fun with it."
Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl likely will be his final game in an Illinois uniform. Though Mercilus has stuck to an "I'll decide after the bowl game" mantra when it comes to NFL questions, those close to him think he has to make a pro choice.
"It will be just like it was in high school and just like it was in college," Sax said. "He'll put in the work. He'll learn the NFL. How long does that take? I really think he'll be a guy who does very well."
Sure, he could return to Illinois in 2012 and put up a bunch of big numbers. But it won't be easy. He was a relative unknown before 2011. Opposing coaches, figuring the Illinois line would be weakened after the loss of star tackle Corey Liuget, didn't game-plan against Mercilus.
But he quickly forced them to take notice, piling up sack after sack early in the season. Later in the year, he was talked about and planned against.
The attention will only climb in 2012. Teams will send two blockers after him on every play, try to take out his legs. The risk of injury increases. Even more important, there's a good chance his productivity falls, despite his best efforts.
It happened to Simeon Rice, who set a school record with 16 sacks as a junior in 1994. In a surprising move, Rice returned for his senior year and had 11.5 sacks. The production drop didn't hurt him in the NFL draft. In fact, he likely went from a late first-round pick as a junior to the No. 3 overall pick after his senior season, one spot behind Hardy.
The people who put together mock NFL drafts have noticed Mercilus. For the 2012 edition.
Bleacherreport.com sends Mercilus to Detroit with the 21st pick of the first round. Drafttek.com has Mercilus going 24th overall to Cleveland. Walterfootbal.com has Mercilus going 30th overall to New England. And on and on and on.
Going early in the NFL draft and earning a spot in a starting lineup would be a major accomplishment for any player.
But at the Mercilus house, it won't register quite the same. Yvrose and Wilner Mercilus have raised three achievers. Right now, Whitney is No. 2 on the list.
Older sister Glory is finishing medical school and plans to do breast cancer research. For the bulk of Whitney's life, Glory set the family standard.
"I tried to follow in her footsteps, which was a hard thing to do," Whitney Mercilus said. "At least I was able to be successful in another area."
And younger brother Donald is a member of the Mount Union football team, which just finished second in Division III.
Sax credits Yvrose and Wilner for the family's success.
"They're both great people," Sax said. "They both work hard. They set great examples, get up and go to work every day. They've instilled that in their kids. They know right and wrong, and they're willing to put in the work."
Donald never doubted his older brother could be a star.
"I've always had faith in him," Donald Mercilus said. "I told him he had the potential to go to the NFL. I was always behind him."
What turned the potential into reality? Donald has a theory. One that goes back to that nasty weightroom accident last spring that cost Whitney the tip of his finger.
"That made him realize that anything can happen," Donald Mercilus said. "He pushed himself."
And, in turn, Whitney has pushed his younger brother.
"He's my biggest inspiration," little bro said. "He shows you that hard work can bring you anywhere.
"He was the perfect big brother."
The friendliness from Mercilus isn't fake. Just ask Sax. Or Donald. Or the family of a youth football player he got to know last summer.
"I live by the Golden Rule," Mercilus said. "That's kind of my motto. They've instilled their values in me."
Ask him for an autograph and he'll sign anything you want. It happened earlier in the season at a bus stop.
"That was a first," Mercilus said.
The final 60
Usually, players are reluctant to talk about records they are chasing. Not Mercilus.
He needs two sacks to break Rice's Illinois record of 16 in a season. He needs one forced fumble to tie the NCAA record for a season (10).
"Get the win, get the two sacks," Mercilus said. "Definitely, I want to break the NCAA record for forced fumbles."
After Saturday's game comes the decision that appears to have already been made. He has already talked with new coach Tim Beckman about his options.
"Whitney, to me, is a very mature individual," Beckman said. "He's very well-respected as a leader on this football team. As this thing further progresses with the NFL, we'll see. He will have to make an educated decision. I think it will have to be a decision that we all sit down and talk about."
So, the coach wants him back?
"Heck, yeah," Beckman said.
Beckman said he senses Mercilus is open to the idea.
"I haven't had a chance to coach him as a football player, but I sure enjoy being around him," Beckman said.