MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite is a history major so passionate about his field he plans to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor.
He and the rest of the Gophers’ defense have had to bone up: Putting pressure on the quarterback has been the primary emphasis for coordinator Tracy Claeys and his staff.
“It’s absolutely critical to get pressure on the quarterback to force him to make decisions he doesn’t want to make or throw off his back foot or anything like that,” linebacker Mike Rallis said. “Obviously we want sacks, but all three levels of the defense help each other out. So we can’t ask the (defensive backs) to cover for 10 seconds. We can’t ask the (defensive line) to get a pass rush in half a second. Everybody needs to work together, and if we do that we’ll be OK.”
This has been a lingering weakness for the Gophers, who face New Mexico State this Saturday in their home opener.
Sacks weren’t kept as official statistic until the 1980s, but since then only four players have finished with more than eight sacks in one season. Lamanzer Williams set the school record of 18 1/2 in 1997. Karon Riley had 16 in 1999 and 13 in 2000. Ben Mezera recorded 12 in 1999. Willie VanDeSteeg notched 10 1/2 in 2008 and 10 in 2006.
Last year, the pass rush hit bottom with just eight sacks in 12 games.
That’s why middle linebacker Gary Tinsley was moved to the line on certain plays last week at USC. That’s why backup running back Lamonte Edwards even took a few turns at defensive end.
“We can’t have the guys that can run fast sitting over there next to me on game day,” coach Jerry Kill said. “So if we can use him in some pass rushing situations, we’re going to.”
The Gophers would rather rely on their natural pass rushers to generate that pressure. Wilhite, who became a starter last season as a sophomore, is first on that list.
“He’s got the ability to edge rush,” Claeys said. “He really does. So we’ll leave him in there.”
Freshman Ben Perry is the other starter, backed up by sophomore Kendall Gregory-McGhee. The Gophers again went without a sack against the Trojans, but quarterback Matt Barkley threw a lot of quick, short passes that made pressure difficult.
“I think our defensive ends are getting better. They’re just not there yet,” Claeys said.
New Mexico State’s Western Athletic Conference schedule is supplemented by some serious competition this season, following this trip to Minnesota with later visits to Georgia (Nov. 5) and BYU (Nov. 19).
The Aggies are 5-20 under third-year head coach DeWayne Walker and haven’t finished with a winning record since 2002. Their last postseason appearance was the Sun Bowl in 1960, and the last time they faced a Big Ten foe, two years ago, they fell 45-0 at Ohio State.
Walker was actually a starting cornerback for the Gophers, in 1980-81 after transferring from Pasadena City College, where he played with Tim Brewster, Kill’s predecessor on the Minnesota sideline. Walker insisted he won’t be reminiscing.
“Just a business trip. It’s not a vacation,” Walker said. “We’re going to have our hands full, so I’m more focused on getting our football team ready to go and compete.”
NMSU lost last week at home to Ohio 44-24. After watching video of the way the Gophers rallied in the second half and nearly upset USC, the Aggies took note of Minnesota’s penchant for using multiple sets and quarterback MarQueis Gray’s ability to run with the ball.
“We’re going to adjust to whatever they throw at us, and we’re going to do just fine,” linebacker Alex LaVoy said. “They do have a lot of talent on offense, and it’s something we definitely keep in mind.”
New Mexico State fell behind and was forced into a pass-first approach last week, but sophomore quarterback Alex Manley threw for 362 yards against the Bobcats with two touchdowns. Manley, though, was sacked three times, threw one interception and completed only half of his passes, so this could be a prime opportunity for the Gophers to jump-start their rush.
“I think we probably averaged close to 30 sacks a season where we’ve been,” Claeys said, referring to previous work on Kill’s staff at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois. “If you’ve got to blitz all the time to get ‘em, you’re really putting yourself in jeopardy, too. So they know we need to generate with a four-man rush. If we don’t get him more than eight sacks, then we’re going to have a long year.”
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