His name is Donald Lynn Wilhite, but he goes by D.L., which is absolutely the coolest coincidence for a D.efensive L.ineman. Except that it's not really a coincidence.

"My parents called me that when I was born, because they said it sounded like a football name," Wilhite said. "You associate D.L. with football."

And you associate Wilhite with the Gophers' defense, because he's been a part of it since 2008, a five-year career that at one point seemed more likely to last five weeks. Wilhite arrived at Minnesota as 17-year-old running back who had seen virtually none of the world outside his Lexington, Ky., home and who, he admits, was far from ready for college football.

"Honestly, my first couple of weeks here, I didn't think I was going to make it, I was so out of shape and overweight," said the 6-4, 250-pound senior. "I was calling my mom, crying and saying I'm going to come home. But I kept on sticking it out."

He did, through losses and more losses, through coaching changes and challenges to his job. He's a pass-rushing specialist who too frequently fought his way to the quarterback, then somehow let him get away. He entered his senior season with seven career sacks -- and the knowledge that it could have been double that.

"He missed eight or nine sacks a year ago, just flat missed the tackle," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. But he worked harder than ever in preparation for his senior year, and "he's gotten faster and stronger through the weight room."

Opposing quarterbacks have noticed. Wilhite has already collected 6.5 sacks this season, the second-highest total in the Big Ten, and nearly as many as the nine that Minnesota's entire team had in 2010. He already ranks seventh in school history in career sacks, and needs one more this year to rank among the top 10 in Gophers' single-season totals.

"Every time I step on the field, even as a freshman, that's all I wanted to do -- get sacks," Wilhite said. "I have to remind myself I've got to play the run, too, but I love getting sacks. It's the most fun part of the game. And when I get a sack, my mom watching on TV back home gets to hear her son's name."

So what is Wilhite doing differently this year? To hear Wilhite tell it, he's mostly just playing with better teammates. The Gophers do a better job of forcing third-down passing situations, he said, and the secondary buys him more time to zero in on the passer by doing a better job of covering receivers.

Tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be "one of the best football players I've ever seen," Wilhite said, and Cameron Botticelli "is the unsung hero of the defensive line. I know there are times I make a play just because he's in his gap, doing his thing, keeping people occupied."

Staying occupied is Wilhite's specialty, too. He spent spring break a year ago on a bus tour of the Midwest, doing community service projects. Last December, once football season ended, he completed a study-abroad program by spending several weeks in Doha, Qatar, a small Arab country on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf, studying Al-Jazeera's coverage of the Arab Spring revolutions. And sometime early next year, he hopes to serve an internship in Morocco, unless he puts it off in order to train for an NFL tryout.

He's also got a senior thesis to write -- in Arabic.

"It's a beautiful language," said Wilhite, who learned to speak and write Arabic as part of his double major in global studies and history (with a minor in African-American studies). "It's an important language. To speak it [in Qatar] -- before I came here, I hadn't seen much of the world. Over there, with the ocean and the desert, it was kind of surreal."

Football is his reality for a few more weeks, though. He would like to get to a bowl game one more time. And he would like to hold off Hageman, who has five, for the team lead in sacks.

"I give him a hard time, tell him I'm not even competing with him, that he's not even on my radar now," Wilhite said. "But I'm totally cognizant of Ra'Shede. He's breathing down my neck."

So is the end of his career, just a few games away. "I've played a lot of football here. I've been blessed," Wilhite said. "At times, it's been hard -- losing games, coaches changing. But at the end, the brotherhood in the locker room keeps me coming back. I'm glad I stuck it out."