The apprehension in the minds of Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter and his position coach, Andre Patterson, lasted only the short time it takes the menacing edge rusher to reach the ball carrier.

Hunter's first padded practice in Vikings training camp last week was as much a mental exercise as it was physical. How would the All-Pro pass rusher react, more than nine months removed from neck surgery, to delivering his first push against an offensive tackle? He hadn't suited up in pads since January 2020, before sitting out last season. Even Patterson, the team's defensive line guru, wondered how Hunter would play.

"To be honest with you, I was concerned the first day we went in pads," Patterson said Thursday. "I wanted to see what was going to happen. You're a defensive lineman; you're banging somebody every single play. So, the first day in pads I wanted to see, was he going to be timid to put his face in there? He was not."

"After we had the first team rep — and it was a run play and he fit the run like we always do — it was done for me," Patterson added.

One padded practice was all Hunter said he needed to put last year's herniated disc, and the subsequent surgery and recovery, behind him. The Vikings' top pass rusher has been working out and practicing at TCO Performance Center without limitations, which is welcomed news after Mike Zimmer's defense posted a franchise-low 23 sacks without him in 2020.

"I'm unrestricted," Hunter said. "I can do whatever."

The only lingering question is when Vikings fans will see him in a game again. Zimmer said Hunter will "probably get some plays" in the preseason, but it remains to be seen if any will be in Saturday's opener against the Broncos. Hunter was given rest days during both joint practices against Denver. Zimmer has not said how much starters will play Saturday.

Hunter reiterated he's "ready to go" after sitting out two practices, adding he'd like to get some game reps before the Sept. 12 regular-season opener in Cincinnati. According to Zimmer, starters are expected to play the most during the second exhibition, Aug. 21 vs. Indianapolis.

"I feel like it's very important, just to go out there and have a feel for what it's like again," Hunter said. "Definitely need to be smart about it and save myself for the season."

To his coaches and teammates, Hunter has looked like the same player who in December 2019 became the NFL's youngest ever to reach 50 career sacks. He caught Zimmer's eye in the first, non-padded practice when Hunter unleashed a pass-rush move that surprised the Vikings' top offensive tackle, Brian O'Neill.

"I wasn't really closely watching him, but I sure did notice him," Zimmer said. "The first time we went one-on-one pass rush, he was going against O'Neill, and it was amazing. So, I heard O'Neill ask him, he said, 'Danielle, what was that move?' And he said, 'I don't know, it just happened.' He's just slithery and long arms and athletic. It's just different."

Hunter's freakish combination of size, athleticism and explosiveness is what makes him one of the NFL's best edge defenders. So does a curious mind. The 26-year-old Hunter said he continued to "share secrets" with Broncos All-Pro edge rusher Von Miller during down time in the joint practices.

Hunter does the same with teammates as the Vikings try to rebuild the offensive and defensive lines ahead of the 2021 season.

"He's just bigger, stronger, faster, quicker and more skilled than 99 percent of the people out there," O'Neill said. "Then he's also willing to talk to you about things that happen. So, if he beats you, I can ask him questions like, 'This is what I saw. This is what you did that made me react this way.' And he's not afraid to lift you up when you do something good, too."