The Minnesota Vikings seemed to strike gold with defensive Danielle Hunter last year in the draft. Yes, he had great size and athleticism, and he was drafted in the third round, so it was expected that he would be able to contribute in the defense. The thing is, though, that he probably developed quicker than most people expected him to.
Hunter never really put up the stats in college that you would expect a player of his size, strength and speed to produce. He only recorded 4.5 sacks throughout his three years at LSU and only 1.5 his junior year. Usually you would expect a player to increase their production with the more experience that they get, but Hunter’s sack total decreased from his sophomore to junior year.
That did not deter the Vikings from taking him, though, because they saw the potential in him as a player and believed that they could mold him into the type of player they wanted.
“The big question is can you change it? No. 1, it always helps to be a smart guy, which Danielle is,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer explained. “Is he willing to work? Will he listen to coaching? Usually, Hunter is a sponge. He wants to sit in there and try to learn everything, and you have to be careful of that too - that you don’t overload them. You have to give them something to work on, something to work on.”
The first thing that the team had Hunter work on was getting off the ball properly. In college, and from time to time during his rookie season, he would stand straight up when the ball was snapped and then attack the offensive tackle. Instead, the team worked with him so he would move forward right away, taking the offensive tackle by force.
Even though Hunter is big, measuring in at 6-foot-5, 252 pounds, he is still fast. Offensive tackles hate going up against speed, so the faster Hunter would be on them the better off he would be. They even began having him line up in a two-point stance (standing up) before the ball was snapped, so he could get after the quarterback right away. They still want him to work out the the three-point stance (one hand on the ground), though, because they need him working out of that in the run game.
The next thing the coaching staff worked on with Hunter was the use of his hands. In college, he would often keep his inside hand low, but it is important for a defensive end to keep their inside hand up and extended. It helps them with leverage and it makes it harder for the offensive tackle to get their hands on them.
You could tell that all that techniques came together for Hunter toward the end of the season as he finished his rookie year with six sacks, including a three-game stretch toward the end of the year in which he recorded 3.5 sacks.
It’s all about finding the guys with the the right set of attributes so the coaches can mold them, and Hunter had what the Vikings were looking for.
“I’ve had tons of them, especially longer, athletic guys,” Zimmer said. “But the good thing is we feel we can find guys like that and Rick (Spielman) and myself, we’re always looking for athletes. Guys we feel like we can mold into what we’re trying to do. (Defensive line coach Andre Patterson) is a great teacher. I think most of our coaches are good coaches. We just coach them into trying to be better and using the gifts that they were given.”
Zimmer said that he likes his team to be athletic and have plenty of length. Hunter fit that mold a year ago and was a big reason why they drafted him. This offseason they drafted safety Jayron Kearse because he has a lot of the same gifts. He’s 6-foot-4, which is big for a safety, but Zimmer likes that length.
“Well I don’t know if it helps him or hurts him,” the head coach said of Kearse’s size. “ ... but so far he’s looked good doing the things we’re asking him to do. I believe length always gives a team an advantage because they can reach further, jump higher and all those things, so we always look for length in guys so hopefully it works out good for him.”