staff, January 3, 2012

Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus announced Tuesday that he will forgo his senior season and enter the 2012 NFL Draft. Mercilus entered the season as a relative unknown and finished it as one of the nation's elite defensive players. During his breakout campaign, he led the nation with 16 sacks, forced a Big Ten-record nine fumbles and registered a Big Ten-leading 22.5 tackles for loss.

?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," Mercilus said in a statement. "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."

Illinois' Whitney Mercilus
Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE

Mercilus earned consensus first-team All-America honors, the first Illini to do so since linebacker J Leman in 2007, won the Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end and was named the College Football Performance Awards National Defensive Player of the Year. A 2011 season captain for the Fighting Illini, Mercilus helped Illinois to its second-straight winning season and a victory over UCLA in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. He also led an Illinois defense that ranks in the top-10 nationally in total defense, passing defense, sacks and tackles for loss.

"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," Illinois defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. "The entire Fighting Illini family wishes him nothing but the best as he moves on to the NFL.?

The NFL draft is April 26-28 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Mercilus Postseason Honors in 2011
? Ted Hendricks National Defensive End of the Year Award winner
? Bill Willis Defensive Lineman of the Year Award winner
? College Football Performance Award National Defensive Player of the Year
? Consensus First-Team All-American (AP, FWAA, Walter Camp, AFCA,,, Phil Steele,,
? Bronko Nagurski Trophy Finalist
? Bednarik Award and Rotary Lombardi Award Semifinalist
? First-Team All-Big Ten (Coaches and Media)