Gophers' defense rushing to get better
It will be hard to judge after fall camp whether Minnesota's pass rush will improve in coach Jerry Kill's first season.
But players are saying that Kill's aggressive new defense and substitution methods should make it easier for them to get to the quarterback.
"I think a lot of it is scheme," junior defensive end D.L. Wilhite said. "Because every time I line up now, not only me but the rest of the defensive ends, we're thinking pass first. Everything is pass, and then we're reacting to the line. So getting off first expecting pass, we're getting off faster and we'll get more chances to get to the quarterback doing that."
Wilhite is almost too embarrassed to talk about how he only had one sack last season. As a team, Minnesota hit a low point with 8-1/2 sacks, ranking last in the Big Ten and in the nation.
Three years ago, Minnesota led the Big Ten with 34 sacks, behind Willie VanDeSteeg's 10-1/2. And even with VanDeSteeg gone in 2009, the Gophers still had 22 sacks.
Last year's production dropped by more than half in part because the defensive line lacked depth as well as experience.
"Another thing is they'll rotate this (season)," Wilhite said. "Last year, I played like 60 or 70 reps the first game. And when you're playing that many reps, it's hard to keep a consistent pass rush. Coaches do a real good job of rotating us in and out now to make sure we stay fresh. So when it gets to third down, we're not out there tired."
In last Saturday's scrimmage, the defense picked up an unofficial 10 sacks, which said as much about the inconsistency of the offensive line as it did about the quality of the pass rush.
But there were new and familiar faces making plays.
Sophomore defensive end Matt Garin and sophomore linebacker Brendan Beal, a University of Florida transfer, had two sacks apiece. Beal's came on one drive.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Ben Perry's size and relentless pursuit of the quarterback were evident and an example of why he moved into a starting role opposite Wilhite in fall camp.
"I'm working a lot better right now," the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Perry said. "(Defensive coordinator (Tracy) Claeys is a great coach. He's a genius when it comes to defense. He tells us not just what we need to know about what's going on but about what freedom we have."
True freshman defensive end Michael Amaefula has gotten reps with the first and second units because of injuries to Garin and Kendall Gregory-McGhee.
But Garin has recovered from an ankle sprain, and Gregory-McGhee returned to the team Friday after flying to North Carolina to get fitted for an orthotic shoe insert to relieve pressure on his sore foot.
The Gophers have more depth at defensive end than any position on defense, but it's only a strength if they produce better results.
"We've got to find some people that can rush the passer," Kill said early in camp. "That still bothers me. We've got to be able to put pressure on the quarterback. Do we have that yet? No. We've got to find that."
Briefly: The Gophers' final open scrimmage of fall camp is at 9:40 a.m. today at TCF Bank Stadium. Kill said he might slow down the tempo because his players are worn out from two-a-days this week. Players who will be held out of the scrimmage include starting center Ryan Wynn (ankle) and starting tight end Eric Lair (groin).