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Updated: September 12th, 2012 10:52pm
Notebook: Hageman, Wilhite lead Gophers' renewed pursuit of the QB

Notebook: Hageman, Wilhite lead Gophers' renewed pursuit of the QB

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Sacks have been a scarce commodity for the Gophers defensive line in recent years, giving the unit little reason to pay attention to the count.

In 2010, the Gophers managed only nine sacks. That total jumped to 19 last season but was still one of the lowest marks in the Big Ten. Less than half of those 19 sacks were accounted for by the line (8.5).

But two weeks into the new season, the D-line has reason to monitor its tally.

Junior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite already have the group three sacks away from surpassing its total from a year ago. All six of the Gophers' sacks this season have come from the line.

The sack count being kept among members of the line is all in fun, though it doesn't mean guys don't want to be at the top of the list.

"You try not to count too much, but we're all trying to keep counts and push each other to see who can get the most," Wilhite said with a smile last Saturday after the Gophers' 44-7 win against New Hampshire.

Hageman, who has finally begun to evolve into a dominating presence up front, leads the Gophers with three. But Wilhite, owner of two and half sacks, jokingly contends that Hageman's third should have been his.

Less than minute from halftime, Wilhite honed in on New Hampshire quarterback Andy Vailas

Wilhite was on him, seemingly instantly, and dove to make the tackle. But Vailas stayed upright, barely. The momentary pause was enough to allow Hageman to follow behind and drive the quarterback to the ground.

"He got mad and was saying it was his sack," Hageman said slyly when asked about it Tuesday.

Ultimately, the Gophers don't care where the sacks are coming from. They are just happy for the obvious upgraded pressure the line has been able to put on the quarterback - a glaring weakness on the "U" defense in 2011.

Whether or not those improvements will carry on throughout the season is unforeseen. Western Michigan's quick release, pass-heavy offense, fronted by senior quarterback Alex Carder, will provide the Gophers their first major test of the year on Saturday after facing unproven, underclassmen quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks.

Carder threw for a combined 603 yards and six touchdowns, despite four interceptions, in his team's first two games.

Hageman isn't deterred by Western Michigan's tendency to pass, seeing it instead as an encouraging sign.

"I'm excited. Just going through film, you see how much they throw the ball," he said.

"My whole mentality is get to the quarterback. Plain and simple. No ifs, ands or buts. I'm not trying to think too much. I'm trying to get to the quarterback as quick as I can."

Shortell gets his chance

There is no " quarterback controversy" facing the Gophers, but sophomore back-up Max Shortell isn't going unrecognized.

Shortell made his season debut Saturday in the fourth quarter after the Gophers were already up 37-7. Twelve plays later, he helped add a sixth touchdown to the team's total.

Shortell showed no ill effects of standing idle on the sidelines as he efficiently guided a drive that ended with a 19-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver A.J. Barker. Though only in for two series, he completed five of his six throws for 72-yards to go along with 17 rushing yards.

"It felt good to be out there with some of the younger guys," he said on Tuesday. "Being in there with the younger group, I work with them every day, so it was a good chance to see how we work together in a game.

With starter MarQueis Gray currently rooted as the principal leader of the Gophers' offense, Shortell has stayed in the background, waiting for chances to arise. Barring injury or an unforeseen midseason change in direction, Shortell's role is likely to remain the same in the short term.

Shortell has never expressed uneasiness with the arrangement. Instead, he maintains his focus on being ready to capitalize when given an opportunity.

"It's tough staying loose on the sidelines. You come out at halftime and get loose in case you might go in," Shortell said. "You're playing the game even though you're not out there. You're getting mental reps. I know the play. I watch coverage. I watch MarQueis judge the defense. I'm essentially playing in my head. I'm just not getting the physical reps."

Coach Jerry Kill feels his sophomore quarterback is well in-tune with what his position is among the quarterbacks.

"I think he's got a pretty good attitude. Everybody wants to play ... But I think he understands exactly where he's at and what he needs to do, and competition is very healthy," Kill said.

"I was very pleased with his performance when he came in the other day. He was sharp and ran the team well, threw the ball well."

Kill hinted that Shortell's strong performance could lead to him being used more in specific situations as the season progresses.

Payoff finally comes for Beal

Four years of waiting came to an emotional climax for redshirt Brendan Beal when he lined up for the first time at middle linebacker early in the first quarter of the Gophers' season opener at UNLV.

With his father in the stands at Sam Boyd Stadium, tears formed in the corners of Beal's eyes.

"I couldn't believe it at first. It was like, 'Oh my God. This is reality,'" Beal recalled a week later. "It didn't really hit me until running out of the tunnel, coming out. "It is a great feeling, just great to be out there with the guys."

Beal, a highly sought-after recruit in 2008, had his collegiate debut repeatedly delayed by a pair of ACL injuries and his decision to transfer from Florida to Minnesota.

But the wait is no longer in his mind.

Beal has solidified himself as the Gophers' No. 2 option at middle linebacker behind senior Mike Rallis. Even two broken bones in his right hand -- an injury suffered in fall camp -- haven't hindered his playing time. Through two games, he has tallied five tackles.

Notes

• Freshman wide receiver Andre McDonald has recovered from an infection around one of his knees that was caused by turf burn suffered in the UNLV game. Kill reiterated that McDonald could have played Saturday, but was held out as a precaution. McDonald is expected to be in the receiver rotation against Western Michigan.

• Former Gophers running back (2001-04) Marion Barber III attended practice Wednesday and spoke with the team. Barber sits fourth among the Gophers' all-time leading rushers. He retired from the NFL following the end of the 2011 season after seven years in the league.

• Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys mentioned Wednesday that he plans to continue using an eight to nine-man rotation at linebacker. Rallis and fellow senior Keanon Cooper and redshirt sophomore Lamonte Edwards started against New Hampshire, but were subbed in and out frequently with Beal, Spencer Reeves, James Manuel, Ryan Grant, Aaron Hill and Joey Balthazor.

"As long as guys are productive we're going to play them," Claeys said. "I'd like to keep rotating in as many kids as I can."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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