Whitney Mercilus walks through the Houston Texans locker room in all Nike black — hat, shirt, shorts, shoes. This is right after the sucker punch of an overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks, which might make one think Mercilus' outfit fits the occasion.
Only, Mercilus is hardly wallowing in any doom and gloom.
"I feel excited," he says. "Excited about what this team can do."
And why not? After all, Mercilus is suddenly playing a starring role on the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL. It's largely been lost in the rightful fury over Matt Schaub's play and the future of the Texans quarterback position, but the 23-year-old, second-year linebacker racked up two and a half sacks against Seattle and its elusive quarterback Russell Wilson.
With 3.5 sacks in four games, Mercilus already stands just one sack away from Barwin's sack total from last season.
While Texans rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins is getting love for being named the Offensive Rookie of the Month, both of general manager Rick Smith's last two first round picks are making a major impact. And the guy Smith nabbed in the first round in 2011 (J.J. Watt) is doing a little something too.
It's amazing how quietly and efficiently Smith's grand plan is working, financial restrictions included. The Texans have lost Mario Williams and Connor Barwin in back-to-back offseasons with little apparent effect on their defense.
If Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey pulled off this kind of transition, you'd never hear the end of it.
Whitney's effectively replaced Barwin — who signed a $36 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in March — with no drama. Just like the possibility Smith planned on when he took the somewhat raw Illinois sack machine with the 26th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
In fact, with 3.5 sacks in four games, Mercilus already stands just one sack away from Barwin's sack total from last season. And he has a real chance to equal or better the 11.5 sacks Barwin racked up in his career year of 2011. Meanwhile, Barwin's recorded two sacks this season for an Eagles defense that is getting pushed all over the field.
"Whitney's getting better and better," linebacker Brooks Reed says. "You can just see his confidence growing."
That confidence came out against the Seahawks when Mercilus raised his arms to the sky and screamed for another packed Reliant Stadium crowd after one sack.
It pays to play in a Wade Phillips' defense. If you're a natural pass rusher — and Mercilus racked up 16 sacks in his last year at Illinois — the Son of Bum will find a way to get you free. Phillips' protege after Phillips' protege talks about how the Texans defensive coordinator let his guys play loose without over thinking things, freeing them up to do what they do best.
For Mercilus, that is rushing the passer and making quarterbacks' lives miserable.
Mercilus wasn't happy with the six sacks he recorded as a rookie — even though he played a limited amount of snaps and proved to be highly productive considering that reality. He set out to get into double digits in year two. And he hasn't let missing most of training camp and all four preseason games with a hamstring injury slow that mission early.
"I think we were all surprised early — just because he had missed so much time — (for him) to play as well as he has," Texans coach Gary Kubiak says. "Then, the surprise went away real quick. He’s been very consistent with his play, very productive with his play. I think he’s an ascending player from a standpoint of playing with his hand off the ground, standing up coming out of college, to where he’s at right now.
"Bright, bright future and that’s what he was brought here for."
Rick Smith's Defensive Makeover
With 24-year-old Watt, 25-year-old cover cornerback Kareem Jackson and 26-year-old tackle machine Brian Cushing also having joined the Texans defense over the past five drafts, Mercilus fits right into a unit that should make noise for years. No wonder why Mercilus wondered if the ballyhooed team meeting called by tailback Arian Foster this week was even necessary.
If you're a natural pass rusher, the Son of Bum will find a way to get you free.
"Honestly, to me personally, I don’t think it was needed," he says. "We already know what the morale is and things like that. We already know how close and tight knit of a group we are."
Mercilus knows he'll still be quarterback hunting no matter what happens with the Texans' own quarterback position. Phillips used him as a spy at times against Wilson and facing an arguably even more mobile — and definitely more powerful — quarterback in the San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick this Sunday could bring more of the same.
It's a Sunday Night Football NBC showcase — the biggest spotlight in the league these days — though. More of the same, more sacks, from Mercilus would be something of a national coming out party for the late first round pick.
Not that the man in Nike black seems to care much about that.
“Not much of a statement game for me," Mercilus says of his Seahawks performance. "For me, it just shows my progress. I’m coming along in a positive way. Hopefully, I can continue that week to week."
Mercilus is working Smith's plan too, becoming an impact player as fast as he can.