ILLINI LINKS

Two Illini players go in first round

2012-04-27T00:35:00Z 2012-05-15T20:08:00Z Two Illini players go in first roundBY STU DURANDO • sdurando@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8232 stltoday.com

The NFL draft saw a run on defensive ends in the first round Thursday night as five were selected from the 15th to the 21st picks. Yet, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus remained available.

But despite some surprises Mercilus didn't drop far enough to have his night ruined. The Houston Texans made him a first-round pick with the No. 26 overall selection.

A big night for the Illinois program continued when receiver A.J. Jenkins was selected by San Francisco at No. 30.

Mercilus, the country's sack leader in 2011, had gambled that his one big season would be enough to impress the NFL, opting to forego his final year of eligibility. That decision paid off.

He and Jenkins gave Illinois five first-round draft choice in the last five years, following Corey Liuget in 2011, Vontae Davis in 2009 and Rashard Mendenhall in 2008.

Mercilus was not invited to attend the draft and watched instead from his home in Ohio. ESPN cameras caught his reaction and that of friends and family as they piled onto the 6-foot-3, 260-pounder as he sat on a couch.

As a junior, Mercilus led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He was second with 22½ tackles for loss.

The glut of defensive ends began with a stunner. At No. 15 Seattle took West Virginia's Bruce Irvin, who has had multiple run-ins with the law and was not projected as a first-rounder.

Mercilus also was taken behind Quinton Coples at No. 16, Melvin Ingram (No. 18), Shea McClellin (No. 19) and Chandler Jones (No. 21).

Jenkins also had a breakout season on an offense that sputtered much of the year. He finished with 90 catches for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. His yardage was second best in school history. He excelled despite the absence of a second receiving threat.

Jenkins will join a receiving corps in San Francisco that includes Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham.

It is the first time since 1996 that Illinois has had two players taken in the first round. In '96, Kevin Hardy went No. 2 overall and Simeon Rice No. 3.

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