When the Minnesota Vikings drafted defensive end Danielle Hunter in the third round of last spring’s draft, he was a bit of a wild card for those not immersed in the draft. His college numbers didn’t jump off the page – just 4½ sacks in two years as a starter at LSU – but he was the type of athletic specimen that a lot of teams had on the radar.
In scouting terms, Hunter was a classic project player with great upside potential. The thought process was that Hunter would take time to develop into a player that could become dominant, but, early on, he would be a lump of clay that needed to be molded.
He was inactive for two of the first three games and, early on, it appeared as though he was going to be a player stashed deep on the roster who would be a situational part-time player. But as the season progressed, Hunter’s role increased incrementally. By the time all was said and done, Hunter finished with 34 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and six sacks – better numbers as a rookie in the pros than he had as a college player.
Asked to explain how he made such a seamless transition, Hunter said it wasn’t about him. It was more about coaches like Mike Zimmer and defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
“I think the biggest thing for me is that I came into a good situation here,” Hunter said. “From Coach Zimmer to my position coach to my teammates, they’ve all been great. They stress things with me that I can understand and correct. When I mess up, they always take their time and explain to me what the right way to do things. That helped me out a lot.”
He sees his expanding role in the Vikings defense as part of the overall improvement of the Vikings. The performance of the defensive group is more important than the individual parts and Hunter is just a cog in the bigger machine.
The most gratifying thing for Hunter has been seeing the lessons learned on the practice field and the classroom carrying over onto the field on game day.
“Our goal is always to get better each week and I think these last three of four weeks we’ve seen that happen on the field,” Hunter said. “I think it’s the unity of the defense. We work off each other and we believe in each other. It’s all of us together for one goal.”
Hunter has enjoyed more success than anyone could have projected when he first arrived to the team last spring. His talent shined through quicker than anticipated, but it wasn’t a one-man show.
He is quick to credit veteran teammates like Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Linval Joseph and Justin Trattou for becoming mentors and quickening his maturation as a football player. Without them, he doesn’t think he would be in the position he finds himself in today.
“I think I’ve adapted a lot,” Hunter said. “But a lot of the credit for that goes to my teammates – Griff, B-Rob, J.T., Linval, all those guys. They took me under their wing and taught me a lot of things. I wouldn’t be where I am if not for them.”
The future looks bright for Hunter as he continues to polish his game and show the growth that he did as a rookie. He is hopeful that his game will continue on the upward track it has started with this season, but he isn’t going to rest on his laurels and get complacent or full of himself for what he has accomplished.
He sees his ascent as just the tip of the iceberg. Nothing has been handed to him and he doesn’t expect anything to be given to him in the future. If his improvement is going to continue, Hunter is going to earn it.
“Nothing is set in the future,” Hunter said. “All you can do is keep working and keep improving and carry over what you learned and what you accomplished this year into next season.”