D.L. Wilhite has been at Minnesota long enough to remember Willie VanDeSteeg.
Wilhite's first season with the Gophers, in 2008, was VanDeSteeg's last. Although Wilhite redshirted that fall, he worked alongside VanDeSteeg at practice, and VanDeSteeg took him under his wing. That season, VanDeSteeg recorded 10.5 sacks, tied for second in the league, and 19 tackles for loss en route to earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media.
But since VanDeSteeg's departure, Minnesota hasn't had a pass rusher close to his caliber. The team hasn't had a player record more than four sacks in each of the past three seasons. Minnesota's sacks leaders had just three sacks in both 2009 and 2010, while the late Gary Tinsley, a linebacker, led the team with four last year.
After finishing 24th nationally in sacks in 2008, largely thanks to VanDeSteeg, Minnesota slipped to 78th in 2009, 120th (last in FBS) in 2010 and 86th last season.
"Coming up, Willie was my role model," Wilhite told ESPN.com. "He was the one I looked up to. When he left, I looked Willie in the eye and told him I was going to be better than him, and I feel like I haven't shown that up until this point."
Wilhite has one last chance to ensure his promise to VanDeSteeg. And what a boost he could provide to a defense sorely needing one from the front four in 2012.
He leads a group of young defensive ends who have made the pass rush their peak priority this spring. Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is open to turning his linemen loose, but they have to show they can finish in the backfield.
Ben Perry, who started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2011, feels the line is getting closer and points to the season finale against Illinois, where Minnesota recorded a season-high five sacks in a 27-7 victory. But the group needs to upgrade its fundamentals, which are being stressed this spring.
"We can't be taking inefficient moves," said Perry, who recorded 15 tackles and a sack last season. "We've got to keep our hips toward the quarterback, stay low and keep leverage. We do drills, making sure we stay under the chute and keeping not just our pad level low but our legs bent."
Minnesota's defensive linemen recognize the urgency to upgrade their play, not just for the team but in a league like the Big Ten. The Gophers return most of their linebackers and should be solid there, but they once again have question marks in the secondary after finishing 11th in the league and 107th nationally in pass defense in 2011.
"If we're getting pressure, it alleviates stress on a lot of different people," said Wilhite, who had three sacks and a forced fumble last season. "The DBs aren't having to cover as long, the linebackers aren't having to cover as long. We're not having to bring people to blitz, so we can drop more people off in coverage."
The team's declining pass rush is more pronounced in a league like the Big Ten, which regularly boasts four or five top 20 defenses. The league produces many more elite NFL draft prospects from the defensive line than from any other position.
"Year in and year out, the team that's going to win the Big Ten championship probably is going to have the best D-line," Wilhite said. "In the past years, Iowa's had great D-lines, Ohio State's had great D-lines. So if we want to win, it has to start with us."
Although Wilhite is a fifth-year senior with 20 starts the past two seasons, Minnesota remains fairly young at defensive end. Perry is a redshirt sophomore, while Michael Amaefula, a true sophomore, made four starts last fall. Thieren Cockran, who redshirted last fall, should be in the rotation this year.
Wilhite singled out Amaefula's play this spring, noting that they try to mimic each other's pass-rush moves. Perry also is showing more confidence on the practice field.
"You learn so much more in a game than you ever could in a practice, just stepping on that field each play," he said. "The experience, it's incomparable."
Wilhite's college experience won't be complete without a big senior season. As the leader of the defensive ends, he still plans to fulfill his pledge to VanDeSteeg, who attends one or two Minnesota games per season.
"I want to see him one more time," Wilhite said, "and be like, 'OK, Willie, you had 10 sacks your senior year, but I had 11.'"