MINNEAPOLIS — As he took down Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase late in the first half of Saturday’s game, Minnesota defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite’s long-time goal was in his grasp.
The sack gave Wilhite 7.5 on the season, tying him with Nebraska’s Eric Martin for the most in the Big Ten. Leading the conference in sacks is something Wilhite has aimed for since his redshirt freshman season in 2009.
But it wasn’t until his senior year that he even came close.
“Each year, I fell not just kind of short, but really, really far away from getting the opportunity to do that,” Wilhite said. “It feels good to actually have some pretty good production this year, and I’m glad that’s been able to help out the team.”
Wilhite had three sacks as a junior year last season, second-most on the Gophers. He had one sack in 12 games as a sophomore and three sacks as a freshman. Through 10 games of his senior year, Wilhite has more than doubled his previous career total of seven sacks — and he still has two regular-season games and a bowl game to add to his breakout year.
The key for Wilhite in 2012? Finishing plays. Last year, he said he was close to making a number of sacks but couldn’t quite get to the quarterback. This year, he’s turned many of those near misses into more sacks on the stat sheet — and more quarterbacks on the ground.
“He missed eight or nine sacks a year ago just flat missing tackles and all that, so he’s finished plays better,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “That’s why his production all of the sudden shows up.”
Thanks in part to Wilhite’s ability to get to opposing quarterbacks, Minnesota’s defensive line has been a much-improved unit. The Gophers had an FBS -low nine sacks in 2010 and improved that number to 19 last year. After Saturday’s win against Illinois, Minnesota now has 21 sacks in 10 games, led by Wilhite’s 7.5.
“I always tell people I always thought my identity was a pass-rushing defensive end,” Wilhite said. “If you looked on the stat sheet, it really wasn’t reflecting. That has been kind of disappointing. I feel like my career, I haven’t lived up to all my goals. Just for the stat sheet to reflect how I want to be as a player is very fulfilling.”
Wilhite hasn’t been the only lineman to see his sack numbers take a big leap from last year to this year. Redshirt junior Ra’Shede Hageman, a physical specimen at 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, is second on the team behind Wilhite and tied for fourth in the Big Ten with five sacks.
Hageman and Wilhite were roommates two years ago, and Wilhite calls Hageman his “little brother” — ironic, given Wilhite gives up 50 pounds and is two inches shorter than the younger Hageman. Throughout the early part of this year, the duo tried to one-up each other as they battled for the team lead in sacks. That competition has brought them closer together on and off the field.
“Right now, D.L.’s in a comfortable lead right now, but I can always catch him sleeping this game,” Hageman said. “D.L.’s definitely competitive. He’s probably the most competitive player I’ve played with. He definitely sets his standards high and he has high goals, and he definitely executes that.”
Added Wilhite: “I love Ra’Shede to death. I actually think this competition between me and him, even though it’s a lot of friction, it drove both of us to be a little bit closer.”
Wilhite, who is double majoring in history and global studies, has just three games left in his college career. He’s not thinking too much about what comes after school, instead focusing on helping the Gophers finish their season strong. But when Wilhite’s time in maroon and gold is done, he says he’ll have plenty of options besides football. Some of the post-graduate possibilities he’s kicked around include Teach for America, the Peace Corps or just traveling the globe.
And of course, if the NFL is in Wilhite’s future, he’ll get to do a decent amount of traveling, too.
“It’s definitely a possibility,” Wilhite said of playing professionally. “I’ve got a lot of opportunities I could do once I’m done here. We’ll see. Once the season comes to an end, I’m going to weigh everything out and figure it out. It’s definitely a chance that I will be trying to pursue, the NFL.”
As for Hageman, he still has another year at Minnesota, which is good for the Gophers and not so good for opposing Big Ten quarterbacks. Though Hageman hasn’t been able to catch Wilhite for the team sacks lead, there’s a chance he could hold that title next year.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see my little brother have so much growth and really turn into one of the best players in the Big Ten, if not the country, especially when it comes to D-tackles,” Wilhite said of Hageman. “He’s been pretty dominant this season. I’m thoroughly impressed, going in there every Sunday and watching film and seeing all the fantastic things he’s been able to do. …
“I know for a fact that Ra’Shede has a lot higher ceiling than I do on this football field. He’s got a chance to really go some places,” Wilhite said.