It is incredible how quickly Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter has taken his place among the all-time great sack artists in the NFL.
Hunter, who was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, is still only 25 and might turn out to be one of the best draft picks in club history. The former LSU standout was a third-round pick (No. 88 overall) in 2015 and now is one of the most dominant players in the league.
General Manager Rick Spielman spoke about Hunter after the draft and said, “He’s a project. He only played two years of high school and three years of college. So there’s tremendous upside with this kid. And character-wise, he was A-plus, off the charts.”
The incredible thing about Hunter is he was great at getting to the quarterback right away, despite collecting only 4½ sacks in three seasons at LSU.
“In college, all I did was play into the schematic of whatever defense I had,” Hunter said. “Now I’m just playing and learning from the coaches, Coach Rob [assistant defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez] and [defensive line] Coach [Andre] Patterson, and my teammates and becoming a better player.”
In his rookie season he played in 14 games with one start and still managed to get six sacks, nine quarterback hits and eight tackles for loss.
His second season was even better, even though he still didn’t start a single game. Hunter finished the year with 12½ sacks and 19 QB hits and scored on a fumble recovery touchdown.
He finally got the chance to start in 2017 and recorded seven sacks, but it was after that season the Vikings surprised everyone by signing him to a monster contract worth $72 million over five seasons. Around the time of the signing, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he couldn’t believe how Hunter developed.
“The way he’s progressed, the way he’s improved and the way he’s increased his strength and athletic ability has been really remarkable,” Zimmer said.
Spielman added: “Some guys take three years, some guys take two, some guys hit it right away. You can’t predict that.”
Hunter, meanwhile, said his best playing days were in front of him and that the money wasn’t going to change his drive.
“It’s all about continuing to improve my game,” he said at the time. “Now that I have this [contract], I can’t relax. I’ve got to keep pounding and grinding.”
That is exactly what he has done. In 2018, he recorded 14½ sacks. So far this year he has 12½, including three against the Lions on Sunday, and has a chance with three games left to set a career high for single-season sacks.
In doing so, he became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks.
Willing to learn
One of Hunter’s biggest assets has been his enthusiasm for learning from the Vikings coaching staff. He said Patterson, who has been with him his entire career, still helps him focus on improving even as he becomes one of the best in the game.
“He has helped me a lot,” Hunter said. “He is a big part of the reason of why I play like I play today. He constantly reminds me to just keep focusing on my craft and everything will just come.”
The same could be said for Zimmer, who has always been considered a great defensive coach.
“After each practice since I came here, [Zimmer] corrects everybody that needs to be corrected,” Hunter said. “From the earlier days, he has been doing it a lot and helping me out to let me know what I should do and what I should not do.”
Still, Hunter said that while he leads the team in sacks this season, there’s no question it’s not an individual statistic.
“That just all comes off working together up front,” he said. “Everything equals out. If some teams focus on an individual, then the other people on the defensive line are able to make plays also. That is part of it.”
Fleck on signing day
While the Gophers football coaching staff is preparing for the Outback Bowl against Auburn on Jan. 1, an equally important day is next Wednesday, when high school seniors can sign national letters of intent.
Coach P.J. Fleck said he knows that every player who is verbally committed to the Gophers right now — a number that includes 23 commitments and ranks 33rd in the nation, according to 247sports.com — might not sign.
“You hope you can keep all of them, but again, you get to this time of year and grades get evaluated again and you look at how close people are going to be to getting admitted to the University of Minnesota,” Fleck said. “There’s a lot of different factors that come into play. We’re doing everything we can, but again, we’re never going to stop recruiting, no matter what that means, whether players become ineligible or you’re not able to take a young man for whatever reason or a person de-commits and goes someplace else.
“That’s part of what recruiting is about in 2019 going into 2020, especially with the portal system and the way things change so fast. Your roster changes immediately and you have to be able to adapt to that and be able to see years ahead as a head coach and do everything you can to adjust to it.”
• It was a great honor for me last year to be inducted into the Star Tribune Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame. This year’s class, which was inducted Wednesday night, is tremendous. John Gagliardi was simply one of the greatest coaches in the history of football. Randy Moss, Randall McDaniel and John Randle are three of the greatest Vikings to ever wear the jersey. Willard Ikola put together one of the best hockey careers, playing and coaching, in Minnesota history. And Olympic gold medalist and former Lynx star Lindsay Whalen, now coaching the Gophers women’s basketball team, continues to be the face of women’s basketball in the state.
• The Gophers basketball team hasn’t gotten off to the kind of start it wanted after a 72-52 loss at Iowa on Monday. The Gophers are now 4-5 after starting last season 7-2. The last time the Gophers began so poorly was in 2006-07, when they started 3-6 under Dan Monson. They finished 9-22 that season. Their schedule doesn’t get any easier with No. 3 Ohio State coming to Williams Arena on Sunday.
• The Gophers football team already has a jump on the Class of 2021, ranked No. 15 in the nation and highlighted by Athan and Dino Kaliakmanis, brothers out of Illinois. Athan is the No. 8-ranked dual threat quarterback in the country.