Illini Honor 15 Seniors at Annual Banquet

Interim coach Vic Koenning with 2011 MVP Whitney Mercilus (photo by Mark Jones)
Interim coach Vic Koenning with 2011 MVP Whitney Mercilus (photo by Mark Jones)

Dec. 10, 2011

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Fighting Illini football team, families and friends gathered to honor 15 seniors and the season's award winners at the 110th annual football banquet Saturday at the Memorial Stadium Colonnades Club.

The following are the Illini award winners from the 2011 Illinois Football Banquet:

Most Valuable Player: Whitney Mercilus, defensive end
Mercilus becomes only the fourth defensive end to earn the award. He leads the nation in sacks (14.5), sacks per game (1.21) and forced fumbles (9) while breaking the Big Ten record for forced fumbles in a season. His 14.5 sacks rank second in Illinois history behind Simeon Rice's 16 in 1994 and he led the Big Ten tackles for loss (19.5), the most TFLs by an Illini since Fred Wakefield's 21 in 2000. Mercilus won the 2011 Hendricks Award, given annually to the nation's top defensive end, and has been named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association and He is a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is awarded to the nation's top defensive player, and a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award (best defensive player) and Rotary Lombardi Award (top offensive lineman, defensive lineman or linebacker).

Red Grange Award: Jack Cornell, offensive guard
The Red Grange Award may not be given each year and will be awarded based on merit. The award honors the dedication that Cornell has shown to the university throughout his career and how he has always put the university first. Last year, Cornell carved out a role as one of Illinois' three guards, playing in all 13 games and starting six. Through his unwavering work ethic, he provedhimself worthy of a starting spot in 2011 and has started all 12 games. He also has become trusted as a team leader on and off the field, thanks to his consistent hard work and good attitude.

Most Improved Player: Jonathan Brown, linebacker
Brown was a second-team All-Big Ten selection after leading the Illini with 102 tackles and posting double-digit tackles in six of Illinois' last seven games. He led the Big Ten with 1.73 tackles for loss per game and ranked sixth with 9.3 tackles per game. His 19.0 tackles for loss were second in the league only to teammate Whitney Mercilus and his 0.55 sacks per game ranked fourth. In conference games, he ranked second with 11.9 tackles per game and led the league with 2.07 TFLs per game. His 0.64 sacks per game ranked fifth in the league in Big Ten games.

Rookies of the Year: Reilly O'Toole, quarterback & Donovonn Young, running back
O'Toole and Young share the honor this year after playing a large role in the Illini offense. O'Toole saw his playing time increase throughout the season and he completed 61.5 percent of his passes, going 40-for-65 in the nine games he played. Young scored six touchdowns, second-most on the team, while amassing 406 yards and averaging 5.4 yards per carry in his rookie season.

Outstanding Offensive Back: Nathan Scheelhaase, quarterback
Outstanding Offensive Lineman: Jeff Allen, offensive tackle
Outstanding Defensive Lineman: Whitney Mercilus, defensive end
Outstanding Linebacker: Ian Thomas
Outstanding Defensive Back: Tavon Wilson, cornerback
Outstanding Special Teams Award: Derek Dimke, kicker // Jay Prosch, fullback
Outstanding Wide Receiver Awards: A.J. Jenkins
I BELIEVE Key Contributors Award: Fred Sykes, receiver // Craig Wilson, defensive tackle

Wright Commitment to Excellence Award: Trulon Henry, linebacker
The Wright Commitment to Excellence Award is presented each year to a senior who has exemplified persistence in the face of obstacles to achieve success. Trulon Henry is this year's winner. Trulon is no stranger to overcoming adversity in his life. After serving four years in prison for mistakes made years ago, Trulon searched for someone who would give him a chance to achieve his dream of becoming a college student and athlete. He found that first at the College of DuPage, where he graduated with an Associate's Degree in 1 1ÂÂÂÂÂ?2 years with a 3.10 GPA. He found it for a second time at Illinois, where he is currently on track to earn a degree in sociology next week, in just 3 1ÂÂÂÂÂ?2 years. He has had to manage the academic workload at Illinois along with the football responsibilities of a Big Ten school. In addition, he has had to manage regular check-ins with a probation officer while also trying to be the best father and husband he could be to his daughter Tatum and his wife Morgan. He has also tried to be an active member in the community at local schools talking to kids about making good choices. Trulon's days at Illinois have not been without challenges, but his journey can teach us all a lesson that if you just keep pushing through, you can achieve your goals.

Bruce Capel Award: Troy Pollard, running back
The Bruce Capel Award is given to the Illini player who displays the most courage, dedication and accomplishment throughout the season. Pollard has battled injuries for most of his career, but has found success once he became fully healthy. In 2007, he rushed for 92 yards at Syracuse and had 30 yards on six carries at Indiana before suffering a knee injury. He played in six games in 2008 and scored his first career touchdown against Eastern Illinois, butmissed the last half of the season with another injury. He was finally healthy in 2010, playing in all 13 games, and has carved out a role this season. Herushed for over 100 yards twice in 2011 and his average of 7.45 yards per carry ranks 11th in the nation.

Scholar-Athlete Award: Zach Becker, tight end (3.83 GPA in kinesiology)
Service Above Self Award: Wisdom Onyegbule, defensive tackle
Scout Team Players of the Year: Jeremy Whitlow, receiver (offense); Zepheniah Grimes, linebacker (defense)

2011 Team Captains: Jack Cornell, guard; Trulon Henry, linebacker; Whitney Mercilus, defensive end; Nathan Scheelhaase, quarterback; Tavon Wilson, cornerback

2011 Football Seniors with Zook