Katy, Texas, a small city west of Houston, is where Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter grew up playing football, dreaming about football, running track to build endurance for football and, well, you get the idea.
“There’s not much there,” Hunter said Friday after the Vikings’ last practice before Sunday’s season finale against the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. “There’s a lot of land. You ride your bike. Play with cows and stuff like that. Not much else.”
And how exactly does one play with a cow?
“Tip them over and stuff like that,” Hunter said.
And how exactly did you tip over a cow?
“I didn’t,” he said. “Some of my friends did.”
“At nighttime, you just go out there and mess with them,” Hunter said. “I’d be watching them sometimes. They won’t see you at nighttime. You just run and push them over. Make some kind of noise and they get excited. And you tip them over.”
Nowadays, Hunter tips over beefy linemen on his way to tackling NFL quarterbacks. The 6-5, 252-pound physical freak is becoming a polished NFL pass rusher at the still-tender age of 22. His team-high 12 sacks rank third in the NFL behind Atlanta outside linebacker Vic Beasley (14½) and Denver outside linebacker Von Miller (13½).
The Vikings are 7-8, out of the playoff race and haven’t gotten much more than special teams depth out of their 2016 draft class. First-round pick Laquon Treadwell has been a disappointment with one catch. But before we assemble the pitchforks and head for General Manager Rick Spielman’s front yard, let’s factor in that he also chose Hunter as the 88th overall pick from the third round in 2015. Not to mention leading receiver Stefon Diggs in the fifth round and leading tackler Eric Kendricks in the second round.
Hunter came out of LSU with 4½ career sacks, including 1½ in his final season.
He was the 12th defensive end drafted. None of the 11 taken ahead of him had fewer sacks in 2014, and only one had fewer career sacks in college.
Today, as a situational pass rusher with one start in 29 games, Hunter has more sacks than any of the 11 defensive ends drafted ahead of him. In fact, of all the 2015 rookies, Hunter’s 18 sacks trail only Beasley’s 18½. And Beasley, the eighth overall pick, has played 1,163 snaps, 206 more than Hunter’s 957.
Hunter surprised the Vikings by how quickly he ascended as a rookie.
“He looks the part,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “But I knew he was raw. We saw traits on film that led us to believe he would be a good player. … The way he rushed was not the right way to rush. He never gave himself an opportunity to get sacks.”
For example, the Vikings noticed that Hunter didn’t know or understand the importance of controlling the inside shoulder of the lineman blocking him.
“You have to give him a hand on the inside shoulder because that’s the main hand they shoot,” he said. “You have to beat them to that inside shoulder. If they shoot the outside shoulder, you just have to defend the outside and have your inside hand on their inside shoulder. There’s a lot of reading going on out there.”
Hunter eventually will replace 33-year-old left end Brian Robison. For now, Hunter, Robison (seven sacks) and Pro Bowl selection Everson Griffen (eight) make the Vikings the only team in the league to have three defensive ends with seven or more sacks. And to play devil’s advocate with the Purple pitchfork posse, Spielman was directing the Vikings’ draft preparations when Robison and Griffen were fourth-round selections in 2007 and 2010, respectively.
“Sacks come when you rush as a team,” Hunter said. “I feel like sometimes teams focus so much on Griff that they forget about me.”
Hunter isn’t the first physical marvel the Vikings have had from Texas. Adrian Peterson, who probably could tip a mean cow himself, hails from Houston and has raved to teammates after spending time working out with Hunter in the offseason.
“Adrian said I’m very different than the rest of the people he’s seen before,” Hunter said. “The way I’m built is very unique. And my endurance and my mind-set is very different. I came here to play football. I don’t play around or goof around. I’m here to try and get as good as I possibly can.”