Gophers' D-line starting to turn up the heat

Jerry Kill never hides the fact that he's building a program at Minnesota, which makes him somewhat hesitant to heap praise or draw conclusions after limited on-field success.

But Kill is willing to acknowledge what seems abundantly clear after the first two weeks: Minnesota's defensive line is better.

After three unproductive seasons, the Gophers' front four is disrupting offenses and making plays in the backfield. Minnesota is tied for 23rd nationally in sacks with six, and tied for 31st nationally in tackles for loss with 15. If those patterns continue throughout the regular season, the Gophers will finish with 36 sacks and 90 tackles for loss.

Minnesota had 39 sacks in the past three seasons, including an FBS-low eight in 2010.

"If I'd say there's a vast improvement on our football team through the first two games, our defensive line is much more athletic than it was a year ago," Kill said. "We're getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We've probably have had more hits on the quarterbacks and more pressure than we had most of the year [in 2011]."

Junior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite have accounted for 5.5 of the six sacks, but other linemen are contributing, whether through tackles for loss, quarterback hurries or knockdowns. Tracy Claeys, the team's defensive coordinator and line coach, can use an eight- or nine-man rotation, which includes younger players like Michael Amaefula and Ben Perry, or newcomers like Roland Johnson, and not take a step back.

Hageman, pegged for a monster season by Kill and others, is tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks and tied for fourth with Wilhite in tackles for loss.

"Certainly Ra'Shede has played very, very well in the first two games," Kill said. "He's got to continue to get his pad level down because he's such a tall guy inside, but he's got so much power and has done a good job. D.L. Wilhite has played his best football since we have been here."

The sample size is small and the competition level hasn't been very good (UNLV, New Hampshire). The challenges get tougher the rest of the way, beginning Saturday with Western Michigan.

But the early signs are promising for a defense that has been waiting for a boost up front.

"As a group, overall, they've all had their moments and done well," Kill said, "but we've got to continue to get better."