Danielle Hunter has become one of the NFL’s most dominant defensive linemen, but fellow Vikings defensive end Tashawn Bower, who was also Hunter’s college teammate at Louisiana State, said Hunter’s game has changed in every way as a pro.
“At LSU, Danielle was a completely different player,” Bower said. “We had a lot of things that we didn’t know yet until we got here. I think it’s a whole night and day from his college career to his pro career, and for the better.”
Hunter played at LSU from 2012 to ’14. He played as a true freshman at age 17 but wasn’t a starter. Bower played for the Tigers from 2013 to ’16.
Bower said Hunter was not a player who had many sacks in college.
“Not at all, neither of us were,” Bower said. “I think he left college with three or four sacks [44½ sacks in 52 career games]. Now he gets that in like one game.”
Hunter is still only 24 years old; he turns 25 on Oct. 29. As a pro, he has 45 sacks, which is tied for the most in NFL history before turning 25 with the Rams’ Robert Quinn. Hunter will have three games to hold that record by himself.
So far this season, Hunter has a team-high five sacks, including two last Sunday against Giants rookie Daniel Jones, the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft. Hunter is tied for sixth in the NFL in sacks through five weeks.
How did Hunter turn into this type of pass rusher?
“I think he is just a smarter football player intellectually,” Bower said. “He understands offense more and understands who he is as a pass rusher and knows what moves he should and shouldn’t use. He has an overall better understanding of the game.”
Bower said that when Hunter came to the Vikings he got a chance to change his style of play.
“He developed here,” Bower said. “I think some guys take longer than others, and so when he got to the NFL his rookie year I think it just finally clicked for him. He has had success ever since.”
A student of the game
Hunter, a fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft, said working under different coaches and being around NFL veterans made a big difference in changing his game from LSU.
“I just came in, had good coaching, pretty much had older guys that I would be able to watch and implement my game after them and a good coaching staff,” Hunter said. “So I came in and I decided to just take notes and became a student of the game. I’m a pro athlete, so the main goal each year is to just keep getting better and better. That’s what I want to do.”
Hunter started only one game in his rookie season, but he played in 15, as the Vikings immediately used him as a pass rusher and he had six sacks and nine quarterback hits.
“Midway through my rookie year, I started playing more and started beating tackles,” Hunter said. “I was like, ‘OK, I could be able to play in this league.’ It’s all a part of just growing and being a student of the game.”
Bower said that when he looks at Hunter’s style of play now, he sees that the fifth-year defensive end is making the game look easy.
“More relaxed, plays faster, doesn’t try to overthink, doesn’t try to make plays that aren’t necessarily his to play,” Bower said. “He just plays under the defense, does his job and the plays come to him.”
Hunter said that from his point of view all he has done at each level — either in college or as a professional — is listen to the coaching staff.
“It’s all about going in wherever you’re at and being able to be disciplined and do whatever you’re told to be doing,” he said. “So at LSU I did what I was told to do, and over here I’m doing what I’m told to do. That is all it is in football.”
A friend and mentor
While Bower has battled injuries throughout his NFL career, he said Hunter has been there for him his whole career.
“He has helped me ever since I got into college,” Bower said. “That’s why we have been good friends and whenever I have a question the first person I go to, after Coach, is Danielle.
“He has been one of the probably most honest, true, real people I have ever met, and that’s why we’re still friends. I only met him in college, but we have been like best friends ever since. I hang out with him all the time. We were together training in the offseason. He is the type of guy you want to be around if you want to have success.”
Bower said he is still working his way back into game shape after suffering a knee injury.
“I have been hurt, but I’m still getting everything I need to get mentally [ready],” he said. “I’m still trying to do the things that I can do with my technique off the field while I’m hurt, so that when I come back you know it’s like I never left and I’m ready to go.”
But he said even though he isn’t playing, he is still connected with Hunter. “We try to do a lot of stuff outside of football just to keep sane,” Bower said. “Because we do football all day.”
Gophers prove they belong
It’s no longer a question of whether or not this Gophers team is for real. A 34-7 victory over Nebraska in rainy, cold weather Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium proved that this team belongs in the conversation with the best teams in the Big Ten.
P.J. Fleck and his squad stand at 6-0 on the season and 3-0 in conference play. That a Gophers team is bowl-eligible before taking a loss on the season is just impressive. It’s only the second time in 60 seasons the team has won its first six games.
Against the Cornhuskers, the Gophers barely had to throw. Tanner Morgan completed eight of 13 passes for 128 yards with one score. Seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks once again ran wild.
Smith had 139 yards rushing on 18 carries while Brooks had 99 on 13. And sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim had three scores and 84 rushing yards on 15 attempts.
It took a while for the Gophers to get going this season, as they barely escaped the nonconference season with three victories. But after three convincing performances in Big Ten play, there is no doubt this team is for real.
• Twins President Dave St. Peter said the roster should help attendance continue to climb going forward after the Twins drew 2.29 million fans in 2019 — which doesn’t include the 41,000 fans who attended Game 3 of the ALDS. “I think reality is we’re going to grow our season ticket base,” he said. “I expect to have a really significant attendance year again in 2020. People like this team.”
• Since 1930, the Gophers have started 7-0 five times. The 1934, 1935, 1940 and 1941 national championship teams coached by Bernie Bierman all were perfect in eight-game seasons. The 1960 team led by Murray Warmath began 7-0, finished 8-2 but still won the national championship.
• For all the talk of Kirk Cousins’ struggles, he ranks 10th in the NFL in passer rating (100.0). Carson Wentz, the Eagles quarterback whom the Vikings will face on Sunday, ranks 19th (94.3). Wentz is 1-1 in his career against the Vikings, winning 21-10 at home as a rookie in 2016, when he threw for one touchdown and had two interceptions. He was also the QB last year when the Vikings won at Philadelphia 23-21, throwing for 311 yards with two scores.
• After having a great season with the Vikings in 2017, Case Keenum has really struggled. Last year with the Broncos he went 6-10 and this year he is 0-4 with the Redskins, having missed last week’s loss because of an injury.
• The Vikings still have road games left with the Lions, Chiefs, Cowboys, Seahawks and Chargers. The combined record of those teams is 15-8.
• After winning the NFC North last year, the Bears are off to a rough start in 2019, and they still have to face the Saints, Chargers, Eagles, Rams, Cowboys, Packers and Chiefs in addition to their remaining four division games.
• Walt Scher, a St. Paul Central graduate who worked as a Vikings intern in public relations in 2016 and ’17, is now working as a publicist with CBS Sports.