Mercilus led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles in 2011.
April 26, 2012
New York - Former University of Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus and former Illini wide receiver A.J. Jenkins were both selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft on Thursday night. Mercilus was selected by the Houston Texans with the 26th pick in the first round, while Jenkins was chosen by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th overall pick. It marks the first time that two Illini were selected in the first round of a draft since 1996, when Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice were the No. 2 and No. 3 overall selections.
"When my name was called my emotions just flooded," Mercilus said of being drafted. "I was getting a little nervous because I thought I might go a little higher, so I was really happy when I got the call. I can't wait to go to work with the Houston Texans. From day one I want to go prove to them that they spent their money well on me."
Jenkins was equally thrilled with his selection by the 49ers. "I was kind of caught off guard," Jenkins said. "It's just a blessing that I was taken in the first round by a great organization. I think it's a perfect match. I can't wait to go out to San Francisco, worth with a great coach in Coach Harbaugh and go to work with some talent players. It's a great position to be in and a great organization."
With Mercilus and Jenkins going in the first round, Illinois has had five first round picks since 2008, the most of any Big Ten team during that span. The duo joins running back Rashard Mendenhall (23rd overall by the Steelers in 2008), defensive back Vontae Davis (25th overall by Miami in 2009) and defensive tackle Corey Liuget (18th overall by the Chargers in 2011) as Illini first-round draft picks in the last five years. Of the five, all but Jenkins were underclassmen that left Illinois with eligibility remaining.
Illinois' four underclassmen chosen in the first round since 2008 is tied for the second-most by any team. Alabama leads the way with nine underclassman first-rounders in the last five years, while Florida and USC both match Illinois' four.
A native of Akron, Ohio, Mercilus earned unanimous first-team All-America honors in 2011. During his junior season, he tied Simeon Rice's single-season UI record with a nation-leading 16 sacks. He also led the nation with nine forced fumbles, breaking Illinois and Big Ten records and ranking as the second-most in NCAA history. His 22.5 tackles for loss in 2011 led the Big Ten, ranked second in the nation and third in the Illinois record book. Mercilus 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.
Mercilus was the seventh Illini in the last five years to enter the draft with eligibility remaining. All seven were taken in the first three rounds, including four first-rounders.
Jenkins finished his Illini career with a bang, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors after hauling in 90 catches for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011. All three totals rank in the top-four on their respective single-season lists. He led the Big Ten in receptions per game (6.9) and turned in one of the greatest single-game performances in school history on Oct. 1 against Northwestern, hauling in 12 catches for a school-record 268 yards and three touchdowns in Illinois' 38-35 win. A big-play threat, Jenkins ranked second nationally with four catches of 60+ yards in 2011. He finished his Illinois career ranked third in career receiving yardage (2,432), catches (167) and touchdowns (19).
In a bit of irony, both Mercilus and Jenkins were draft by teams in cities of Illinois two bowl games. Mercilus is headed to Houston, where he helped Illinois defeat Baylor, 38-14, in the 2010 Texas Bowl, while Jenkins is headed to San Francisco, the city where the Illini beat UCLA, 20-14, in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
The 2012 NFL draft continues on Friday with rounds 2-3. Coverage starts at 6 p.m. CT on the NFL Network and ESPN. For complete Illini draft coverage, visit Illinois NFL Draft Central.