INDIANAPOLIS: Most high-profile draft prospects stand in front of TV cameras and behind a podium while being interviewed by reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. Meanwhile, lesser-known players usually interact with smaller groups as they sit beside tables scattered throughout the media center at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Whitney Mercilus started at a table, but he was quickly escorted to a podium after a herd of sports writers rumbled toward him. The scene fit Mercilus’ story perfectly. After all, he has grown accustomed to surprising people, including himself.

When Mercilus was a junior at Garfield High School, he caught Golden Rams football coach Bob Sax off guard by emerging as a dominant tight end and defensive end during the final few games of his junior season. Then last season as a defensive end for the University of Illinois, Mercilus led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles after compiling only two sacks in his first two seasons with the Illini.

Now Mercilus is considered one of the top pass rushers in the draft. He chose to leave Illinois after his junior season, because he wants to support his parents, Wilner and Yvrose, Haitian immigrants who raised their children in Akron.

“It was a way to help my family financially because I didn’t come from a background where I had money just laying out there that I could use,” Mercilus said. “It was a way just to help them out and provide them with a life that they deserve because they’ve worked so hard for all their life. Now it’s my turn to take care of them.

“They broke their backs throughout the years just to put food on the table for me, my brother and my sister. They just instilled those values in us and just to work hard, never give up at anything in life and just keep pushing forward and go for great things. It definitely happened.”

Something to prove

After Mercilus’ breakout season, the draft advisory board graded him as a third-round prospect, though Mercilus expects to be selected earlier. NFLDraftScout.com projects him to be selected in the first or second round.

The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Mercilus said most NFL teams view him as a right end in a 4-3 defense. He hopes to convince scouts at the combine that he is versatile and athletic enough to become a 3-4 outside linebacker, too.

“It’s important to me to show them I have the hip fluidity, good change of direction and that I’m able to drop back into coverage,” said Mercilus, who plans to fully participate Monday when defensive linemen and linebackers work out at the combine. “I’m pretty confident going through these drills that I’ll be able to do something like that.”

The Browns, who have the fourth and 22nd overall picks, are among the teams evaluating Mercilus as a 4-3 end. Mercilus has talked to his hometown team, and he said he was scheduled to interview with some of its representatives Saturday night. The Browns could use an upgrade at right end, and if they don’t trade their second first-round pick, Mercilus might be available when they’re put on the clock at No. 22.

The Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers are other teams that have met with Mercilus at the combine. He has confidently been disputing his one-year wonder label in virtually all of his encounters with team officials.

“I think it’s a negative label because once you have it, you have it,” Mercilus said. “Once you’re able to produce like that and you put it all together, in your mind, you know you’re able to repeat that success.

“I was still learning the game. I was still young. I was still a raw talent. I showed signs of life, showed flashes in games at times, and I just finally was able to put it all together.

“There’s no fluke to it. Sixteen [sacks] is 16. There’s no way you can just fall onto a sack.”

Promising signs

Illinois defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said Mercilus logged a significant amount of playing time in his first two collegiate seasons, but he was not considered a starter and rarely played on third downs, which yield the best pass-rushing opportunities, until this past year. Gilmore believes those who dismiss Mercilus as a one-year wonder will be proved wrong.

“He may have just gotten all the accolades that he’s deserving of, but this has been a work in progress and he’s taken a lot of quality reps here at Illinois throughout his career,” Gilmore said. “I think prior to last season, he was just being a conscientious kid and doing what he was supposed to. Then he got a little bit more of an opportunity to rush the passer on third down, which resulted in him leading the country in sacks.

“I think his best football is ahead of him. He’s just scratching the surface. He’s a very athletic kid, real powerful in the lower body, and I think as he continues to get more reps and play at the next level, he’s only gonna become a better football player.”

Sax became convinced that Mercilus was destined for greatness when he almost single-handedly lifted Garfield to what would have been a huge upset over rival Buchtel as a junior.

“Nobody could stop them, and we go in there and Whitney was just the man,” Sax said. “He was running things down from the backside. He was the man on the play side. We ended up losing the game 22-18. I thought, ‘Hey, this is Garfield-Buchtel, this is a big rivalry and this guy stepped up.’

“We very easily could have gotten blown out 60-something to nothing. That to me was the first like, ‘Wow, this kid’s got a chance.’ He took the coaching. He took care of his grades. He graduated early. He trained hard and had a great senior year. He did everything you always wanted a kid to do.”

Not bad for a kid who didn’t play football until he was a freshman at Garfield, where he became friends with former teammate Chris “Beanie” Wells.

“I followed him throughout his career at Ohio State,” Mercilus said of Wells, a running back for the Arizona Cardinals. “Seeing him [succeed] made me want to elevate my game, get to where he’s at and just try to follow his footsteps.”

Now Mercilus has a shot to do what Wells did in 2009 — become a first-round pick. Mercilus, though, won’t get greedy.

“I’d be content wherever I go,” he said. “I would just be blessed to get a chance with a team and show them what I have and be able to produce.”

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.