Danielle Hunter is the youngest player in the NFL. The Vikings defensive end, who turned 21 last month, still finds himself in a bit of awe going against players he grew up admiring.
That's why he would like to make an early memory for himself by chasing Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers around the backfield Sunday afternoon.
"I've seen [Rodgers] on TV, but I never thought I'd be playing against him someday," Hunter said. "He's a good dude, great quarterback, someone I'm looking forward to rushing against.
"[A sack] would mean a lot to me 'cause I'm a rookie and he's a veteran, so that's something I can remember down the line in my career."
Hunter has worked himself into the defensive line rotation for the Vikings, maybe earlier than some people expected. When he was taken in the third round (88th overall) in May, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman referred to the LSU product as a project, and hinted he didn't expect Hunter to play much as a rookie.
Hunter was active in Week 1 but didn't play the next two games. But before a Week 4 game at Denver, the Vikings coaches asked Hunter to play the role of Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware on the scout team. He drew their attention in that style, and the next week Hunter started lining up occasionally in a two-point stance.
Hunter has earned regular playing time, has 1½ sacks and a forced fumble.
"If we didn't think he could play, we wouldn't play him," coach Mike Zimmer said. "But I think he's done a really nice job of taking to coaching, things that we're asking him to do."
Hunter's youth might have counted against him on draft day, but an nfl.com pre-draft analysis described him as "freakish" — and his chiseled 6-5, 250-pound frame could "make your eyes pop out of your head." The exaggeration was over the top but taken in stride by Hunter.
"I don't pay attention to noise and what they say about me," said Hunter. "I always stress doing what the coaches tell me to do. I don't try to do my own stuff.
"I just go out there and do what they tell me to do, and I guess that's earned me playing time."
Listening and then executing is how Hunter also earned the trust of LSU defensive line coach Brick Haley. Under Haley's guidance, Hunter started to mature into one of college football's the best defensive linemen.
"Most of the coaches tell me my speed and my length, that's something I could use well," Hunter said. "When I came here, they worked on my pass-rushing skills and they've gotten better. … Most of the time my arms are as long as the [offensive] tackles' [arms] or longer, so I just use that to keep them off me.
"It's early in my career. I've just got to stay focused and not be too loud and all that. I take notes whenever I can take notes, I look at whoever I can look at on the field like [teammates Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Brian Robison].
"Those are guys that I look up to and I always watch them play and try to imitate what they do all the time."
Veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn compared Hunter to Jevon Kearse, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and former AFC Defensive Player of the Year who was also known as "The Freak."
Kearse was known for his unusual speed, wingspan and vertical leap, all tools noted as above average on Hunter's profile.
"He's growing each and every week," Munnerlyn said. "I know it doesn't seem like he's contributing that much, but he's a guy that helps us out a lot. He comes in on third downs and rushes the passers and makes my job a whole lot easier getting to the quarterback."
Robison said Hunter's progress is significant compared to when he arrived with the team.
One of Robison's fondest memories of the Vikings-Packers rivalry was when, as a rookie in 2007, he sacked Brett Favre, so Robison knows what a sack of Rodgers could mean to Hunter.
"He's doing a lot of great things for us, being able to move up and down the line, and having him on the outside creates a changeup for offenses and creates maybe some mismatches here and there," Robison said.
"He's done a great job being able to come in for us and give me and Everson a little bit of a rest. You can see his growth coming along really well."