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Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus shooting up charts

The Bears are interested Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus who has knack for forcing fumbles. | AP

The Bears are interested in Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who has a knack for forcing fumbles. | AP

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Updated: April 1, 2012 8:20AM

INDIANAPOLIS — There are three podiums and eight round, 10-seat dinner tables for player interviews in the NFL Scouting Combine media center at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis — the podiums for the Andrew Lucks and Michael Floyds, the tables for the Isaiah Peads and Jake Bequettes.

Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus, a late bloomer in college who’s rising rapidly on the draft charts, literally transitioned from the lower group to the higher one in an instant last week. His media interview started at a table. But when he was inundated by reporters and cameras, he was quickly escorted to a podium.

That’s how quickly things have been happening for Mercilus. The 6-3, 260-pound Akron, Ohio, native was a revelation during the college season. Coming in with only two starts in three years at Illinois, he led the nation with 16 sacks, tied an NCAA record with nine forced fumbles, had 221/2 tackles for loss and won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end.

He applied for an evaluation from the NFL advisory committee after the breakout season and was given a third-round grade. He entered the draft anyway and now is projected to go late in the first round and is being compared to the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul, who played one year of major-college football at South Florida and was drafted 15th overall in 2010.

When he was asked which teams had shown interest in him, Mercilus listed the ‘‘Bears, Chargers, also the Bills’’ — in that order., a well-respected scouting website, projects the Bears to select Mercilus with the 19th pick in the first round.

‘‘Mercilus is a speed rusher with excellent athletic ability,’’ one NFL scout said. ‘‘The question [is], will he be a one-year wonder or an up-and-comer? He could be productive as a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 edge guy.’’

With Israel Idonije a free agent — and coming off a five-sack season playing opposite double- and triple-teamed Pro Bowler Julius Peppers — a defensive end could be high on the Bears’ priority list.

It’s the nature of the draft-evaluation process that Mercilus’ impressive performance at Illinois is actually a point of contention — how did he go from two starts in the previous two seasons (after redshirting as a true freshman) to 16 sacks and 221/2 tackles for loss in one year?

‘‘I just was able to put everything together,’’ he said. ‘‘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 put it all together.’’

Mercilus’ ability to force fumbles certainly has to interest the Bears and coach Lovie Smith. Bears defensive linemen combined for four forced fumbles last year — three by Peppers and one by Idonije.

“I just have a knack for it,’’ Mercilus said. ‘‘I just time it up right. Throughout the game, I was able to watch the quarterback’s movements and just see him open up, then I just go in there and knock it away as soon as I could.”

Mercilus’ 4.68 time in the 40-yard dash was fourth among defensive ends at the combine.

‘‘I have a good first step,’’ Mercilus said when asked what makes him a good pass rusher. ‘‘And I’m able to wear out players, too. I have a never-ending motor, and I keep going [in] the fourth quarter until somebody is dog-tired and take advantage of them.’’

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