Danielle Hunter can only shrug his shoulders when asked why exactly he was running down a boy on roller skates about a decade ago.
“That’s just what we were doing,” he said.
When you’re young and bored and fast, you create challenges with friends that years later might seem a little, well, goofy. All that matters today is that Hunter caught his buddy — and the eye of a youth football coach, starting a career that led the native Jamaican to LSU and then the NFL.
Like the youth coach, the Vikings couldn’t wait to get their hands on the freak athlete with fleet feet, long arms and oodles of raw ability. While defensive end wasn’t their most glaring need during the second day of this month’s NFL draft, they grabbed Hunter in the third round, seeing him as a worthy project.
The Vikings know that Danielle (pronounced duh-NEEL) Hunter, one of the youngest players in the 2015 draft at age 20, is far from a polished prospect, particularly as a pass rusher. But the team believes that if he buys into what they’re teaching him, coach Mike Zimmer and defensive line coach Andre Patterson can mold him into an NFL standout.
“[General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and I talk about these things all of the time,” Zimmer said. “I love athletes, because I have confidence that I can kind of get these guys to play and play better and improve and it doesn’t always work. But if you hit big, you hit a home run, as opposed to getting a steady-Eddie kind of guy all of the time. Those athletes — big, fast athletes — they really attract me for some reason.”
Hunter certainly looks the part, and if you stand next to him, you might find yourself sucking in your gut while craning your neck to make eye contact. Hunter checked in at the scouting combine at 6-5 and 252 pounds. And look at those arms. They were measured at 34¼ inches, though the Vikings have them at longer than 35.
Learning the game
Hunter always has been a physical specimen, dating to that day in fifth grade when he outsprinted the buddy who had strapped on roller skates in a failed attempt to level the playing field.
Hunter knew little about American football then, having moved to the United States from his homeland of Jamaica when he was 9. His family spent six months in New York City, enduring the blizzard of 2003, before settling in Texas.
But the friend’s dad, who coached youth football, figured Hunter could become something special once he got him out on the field.
“When I first put on the pads, I felt like I was invincible,” Hunter said. “I felt like I could do anything — like tackle a tree. I felt like playing football was what I needed to do with my life.”
Hunter played running back and “every position on defense” as a youth. In high school he eventually found a home at defensive end. Rivals hyped him as a four-star recruit.
He signed on at LSU and played right away as a true freshman on a stacked Tigers defense. He started as a sophomore and last season, too, before deciding to head to the NFL early because LSU changed defensive coordinators.
Hunter was a reliable run defender, but he left Baton Rouge with only 4.5 career sacks, leading some analysts to suggest he should have stayed for his senior year.
Armed and ready
Hunter, who projects as a speed-rushing right end, might not be ready to contribute much as a rookie. But the Vikings are hopeful he can follow the career arc of Everson Griffen, another athletic end who became a double-digit sack-getter and all-around player under Zimmer in 2014.
“I’m not saying this guy is Everson,” Zimmer said. “But you look back on Everson Griffen, [he] is a great athlete that started buying into what we’re trying to teach and really took a big jump last year and we’re hoping that [Hunter] will, too.”
Patterson kept a close eye on Hunter during last weekend’s rookie minicamp, and Zimmer was spotted giving him one-on-one instruction a few times, too. The Vikings are working on his “get-off” and tightening his curve around the tackle on the pass rush. They also want him to starting putting those long arms to use.
“[Zimmer] was just telling me that I’ve got long levers and I should start using them,” he said. “He said if I don’t start using them, he’s going to chop them off.”
Hours upon hours of work are ahead for Hunter, but he already has come a long, long way since the day he chased down a buddy on wheels.
“It’s a great opportunity. It’s a blessing,” he said. “This is something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid, making it into the NFL. It’s a dream come true.”