MANKATO – Car shopping can be a hassle for Danielle Hunter. When you’re a 6-5, 252-pound defensive end, you won’t be able to fit into every ride comfortably.
To squeeze into his first car, a 1999 Nissan Sentra, the Vikings rookie pushed and tilted the seat back as far as he could. Yet, the side-view mirrors were still useless.
“I’d look through the rear-view mirror to turn left and right,” Hunter said.
His size isn’t ideal for a compact car, but it’s perfect for an NFL pass rusher. Labeled as a raw prospect during the draft process, Hunter has gained the attention of coaches, players and fans as one of the biggest standouts through nine practices in training camp.
“He is a lot less raw then we thought,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said this week at the team’s training camp. “He has really been impressive, honestly.”
Hunter has grown as a pass rusher during his three months with the Vikings after spending three seasons at LSU. The third-round pick displayed flashes during 1-on-1 periods against offensive linemen that could only be comparable on the roster to defensive end Everson Griffen. Hunter has not only the size but the speed and arms, measured at 34¼ inches at the NFL combine.
Griffen raves about his new teammate.
“Long, physical, long arms,” he said. “Oh my, like give me one more inch in my arms. Whatever that kid wants to do, like I always tell him, he can do.”
Despite Hunter’s physical attributes, he didn’t pile up sacks at LSU. He was talented against the run, collecting 13 tackles for loss last season, but Hunter only had 4.5 career sacks. LSU’s defensive scheme up front was tailored to focus primarily on stopping the run last year. Its defense had only 19 sacks last year.
“If you go on YouTube and watch my college film, I didn’t really use my hands too much,” Hunter said. “I was more of a run stopper than a pass rusher. Now I’m really learning how to do it.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said on draft weekend that he felt Hunter was raw and probably wouldn’t contribute much as a rookie. When the 20-year-old arrived at Winter Park, defensive line coach Andre Patterson got video of Hunter’s pass rushes in college and asked him to explain what happened on every play. Patterson then pulled up film on Griffen and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, then with the Broncos, who Patterson coached during his rookie season in 2006, to show how they create mismatches on the defensive line.
Patterson wanted Hunter to focus on two key areas in his pass rush after that meeting: his hands and his rush angle. Patterson explained how Hunter would take a wide angle on his pass rush, allowing an offensive tackle to push him behind the quarterback on pass plays, rather than attacking an offensive tackle downhill. This subtle change makes a defensive end unpredictable as a pass rusher.
“When you watched him play the run, you wouldn’t say he was raw,” Patterson said. “He made plays. … When you watch him rush the passer, that’s what makes you say, ‘Hey, this guy is raw and still trying to figure it out.’ I just felt like we could fix that.”
Hunter’s willingness to learn stood out to Patterson, who quickly realized he was very mature for his age. Hunter wrote down everything Patterson said while they watched film.
“First time in my coaching career I’ve ever had a guy do that,” said Patterson, who has coached in the NFL and college ranks for 33 years. “I didn’t have to say bring a pen, paper or whatever. He took notes on every single thing I said. He’s a sponge.”
The starting jobs are set at defensive end with Griffen and Brian Robison, but the Vikings might not have a choice but to find room for the rookie in a backup role if he performs well during the preseason. He’ll get his first shot on Sunday when the Vikings face the Steelers in the Hall of Fame game.
Even if that role is as small as his old Sentra, Hunter’s hoping someday it’ll evolve like his current ride — a spacious Dodge Challenger.
“What I’ve been doing all my life is working my way into a starting spot,” Hunter said. “I’ve been doing that all my life. That’s something I’m hoping to do here by just listening to the coaches and mastering my craft.”