Consuela and Dennis Wonnum Sr. were ushering their youngest son, Dylan, a four-star high school offensive lineman, around on a tour of SEC colleges a few years ago when NFL agents started calling.
They wanted to discuss Dennis Jr., then a 20-year-old sophomore defensive end at South Carolina. D.J., as he is known, had had a breakout year, Consuela Wonnum thought, but he wasn't even the biggest athlete in his own house. The lanky D.J. had gotten only one SEC offer, which came after his senior season of high school.
Less than two years later, NFL agents were already calling.
"I was like, 'Whoa, this is happening a little bit faster than I thought it was going to happen,' " Consuela Wonnum recalled over the phone this month. "It came at us kind of quick."
Strong first impressions are becoming D.J. Wonnum's thing.
He's made another one in Minnesota, where the Vikings' fourth-round draft pick has made a few big plays and brought needed potential for a thinned defense.
Through 13 games, Wonnum has played and produced more than any rookie Vikings defensive lineman since Danielle Hunter, to whom Wonnum has been compared because of their nearly identical 6-foot-5-inch frames and work ethics.
"I was never the biggest or smartest player — none of that," said Wonnum, who made his first NFL start Friday against the Saints. "I always had to work hard and put in the work, put in the time to do the things I wanted to do, and I did that. Just being able to be in the NFL is an incredible feeling."
'The rest is history'
The third of four Wonnum children, a 5-year-old D.J. insisted on playing football before he was allowed, and before flag football was a youth sport in Stone Mountain, Ga. He said he was "always the smallest," with a growth spurt waiting until late in high school. Dennis Sr. remembered seeing an eighth-grade D.J. on the sideline and thinking, "He's undersized. I don't know if football" is his sport.
But his parents nurtured a dream. Dennis Sr. taught D.J. how to long snap — Wonnum is currently the Vikings' backup long snapper, replacing injured Eric Kendricks — and tried to keep horseplay on the field.
That wasn't possible raising two boys so close in age, let alone future pro football players. Dylan, now a 6-5, 310-pound South Carolina tackle, is expected to be a coveted 2022 NFL draft prospect. Once when a childhood scuffle between D.J. and Dylan produced a hole in a wall, they were forced into an effective remedy.
"Dennis [Sr.] found out about it," Consuela Wonnum said. "With the arguing back and forth and the hitting and stuff, [he said], 'Just hold hands until you figure out how to get along.' "
D.J. Wonnum finally reached 6 feet tall as a high school junior, when he started to flourish at tight end for Stephenson High School, a growing pipeline of NFL players that has produced edge rushers Bruce Irvin, Preston Smith and Montez Sweat and running back Mike Davis.
But Wonnum, a three-star tight end recruit, wasn't courted like them, Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell said. He'd grown, but he was lanky. Wonnum played defensive end for only one season, splitting college recruiters on his future.
"There were some schools recruiting him as a tight end, some as an outside linebacker/defensive end type," Gartrell said. "D.J. didn't carry a whole lot of weight when he came out of high school."
A winding path, with an offer by Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp weeks before signing day, kept Wonnum close to home at South Carolina, only after he decommitted from Indiana and had his scholarship revoked amid a coaching change at Iowa State.
A strong first summer on campus led to playing time as a freshman. A year later, Wonnum was named a team captain — one of just three sophomores ever to achieve that at South Carolina — and then he led the defense with 13 tackles for a loss and six sacks.
The NFL started taking notice.
"The rest is history," Wonnum said.
Running with another opportunity
A devastating ankle injury in his first game as a junior interrupted Wonnum's ascension. The surgery had complications, including an "inflamed vein," according to Wonnum's mother. It tested his mettle and NFL draft stock, but Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson saw coveted traits — including top-five numbers in nearly every athletic test at the NFL combine — to advocate drafting Wonnum with the 117th pick.
A meeting with Muschamp in South Carolina last offseason convinced Vikings brass that Wonnum fit the "Vikings mold," referring to their evaluations of his character.
"The first time we got him here," Patterson said, "I was able to see how fast he was able to catch on. More and more as time went on, we started adding more on his plate and he handled it. So, we added more on his plate, and he handled it."
He's handled a lot through 420 defensive snaps, fifth-most on the Vikings' defensive line. While benefiting from a patchwork front, thinned by injuries and an opt-out, Wonnum was given even more after the midseason trade of Yannick Ngakoue. General Manager Rick Spielman cited Wonnum's development as one reason for the deal. Ngakoue's salary on an expiring contract was also a key factor.
The next game after the Oct. 22 trade, Wonnum sealed a win at Green Bay with a sack on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers — one of his three sacks this season. Beyond the stats, he's been trusted with versatile roles for a rookie, including spying the quarterback and dropping into coverage, allowing coaches to diversify their game plans.
"Which is the same as when Danielle [Hunter] first showed up here," Patterson said. "It was the same way. Danielle felt comfortable in space. He felt comfortable dropping. It was natural for him to know to get under a receiver or chase a receiver, which the [line]backers do naturally; the D-linemen don't."
But doing the basics, and doing them well, generates confidence in Wonnum, whose mind goes to one standard pass rush when asked about his Vikings rookie season so far.
"When I sacked Aaron Rodgers for the game-winner," Wonnum said. "It was just very surreal making the play for my team on such a legendary quarterback. It was definitely a great feeling. It also kind of built some of like, 'You can do this. This is the NFL. This is your job. This is what you do.' I just kind of took it and ran with it."