When Danielle Hunter was a third-round draft pick out of LSU, analysts thought of him as a big, athletic guy that may not have lived up to his potential as he only recorded 4½ sacks during his college career.
All the talk of potential and not living up to expectations never really bothered Hunter, though. He feels as though he knows what he is capable of and his defensive line coach Andre Patterson knows as well, so the Minnesota Vikings’ rookie defensive end is focusing on what he needs to do to get better.
“People know a football player when they see one,” Hunter said. “Coach Patterson, he saw a football player. He believes in me and I believe in him, so I just go out there and do what I need to do.”
Hunter is not the first raw defensive end talent with a lot of upside that the Vikings have drafted over the years. In 2010 they drafted Everson Griffen out of USC in the fourth round and had him sit behind Jared Allen to develop. That has seemingly paid off as Griffen is becoming one of the more dangerous pass rushers in the NFL and was named a team captain this year.
Odds are the Vikings are hoping that they can have the same type of success with Hunter as they did with Griffen. By having him learn behind Griffen there is less pressure on the rookie to perform. But just seven games into the regular season Hunter’s teammates are already starting to see big things out of him.
“He’s doing good things,” Griffen said of the rookie. “He’s coming off the ball good, using his hands. He’s coming in on third downs to the left side and kicking (Brian Robison) in, down inside, but he’s doing some good things. If he keeps on working like he’s doing, he’s 21 years old; he could be whatever he wanted in the league. I just feel like he needs to keep on doing what he’s doing and keep on listening to the coaches. He’s a good learner, so he just needs to keep on learning and applying the techniques on the field and he should be a real good player.”
Learning the playbook and proper technique has been a real focus for Hunter since training camp and it may have originally taken a little longer to get him up to speed than originally anticipated. Hunter played in 18 defensive snaps and eight special teams snaps in the Vikings’ first game of the season but was listed as inactive the two following weeks.
Instead, the coaching staff decided to go with Justin Trattou, but Trattou suffered a foot injury that forced him to miss multiple games and it allowed Hunter to come back in. He has been doing his best to take advantage of it, as he has been used quite a bit as a rotational player for Griffen and has recorded 1½ sacks in his last three games.
“I know the playbook and all that, so just go out there and perform,” Hunter said of his comfort in the defense. “Don’t think about too many things. Just go out there and do your job.”
Even though he is now getting settled into the playbook and the schemes of the defense, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer sees something in Hunter that is even better than that – he is beginning to understand what the team is trying to get done. In other words, Hunter is beginning to see the bigger picture of the defense, not just the playbook.
“I think he’s getting better, understanding what we’re trying to get done,” Zimmer said. “He’s a guy that goes in there and gives some change of pace for the offensive tackle because of his speed and length. A lot of the things that we’re working on with him, I think he’s starting to understand rush angles better. He made a couple of nice plays in the running game (against the Bears).”
Even though Hunter has been having recent success he knows that he cannot be satisfied. Instead, he wants to keep on improving and keep building off what he has already been able to accomplish.
“Just got to keep feeding off it,” he said. “Can’t be satisfied with that. It’s just one (sack), so got to keep building.”