As part of a rotation at LSU, Hunter was viewed as something of a pass-rush specialist who had off-the-charts athleticism, but was still viewed a professional lump of clay who had a high upside and an even higher athletic ceiling.
In a part-time role as a rookie, he finished second on the team with six sacks, adding 34 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 25 quarterback hurries. There wasn’t a coach on the team – from Mike Zimmer on down – that didn’t sing the praises of Hunter as a rookie.
Hunter picked up where he left off in Week 1 against Tennessee, recording three tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown that blew open the game in the Vikings’ favor.
His role in the defense remains sporadic – he was in on only slightly more than half the plays Sunday – but he is defining a role for himself.
He credits much of his early success to veteran linemen Everson Griffen and Brian Robison. As a new guy stepping in during Year 2 of the installation of the Mike Zimmer defense, the veterans were key in helping him make his transition to the NFL smooth and his success come quickly.
“They’ve been really helpful for me that they were so welcoming,” Hunter said. “There can be some people who see a new player as a threat. None of the guys here have ever done that. They see what Coach Zimmer is looking for and that is getting this defense as strong as we possibly can and continue to improve and build on the success we have had and clean up the areas where we’re not as strong as we should be. The older guys have been key to that – helping the younger guys get up to speed and be able to make a bigger contribution.”
One of the keys for the ease with which Hunter has assimilated into the lineup has been the high level of communication the players have together. They make sure everyone is lined up where they’re supposed to be in the formation and are constantly working in concert to stay true to their assignments on that given play.
Hunter has picked up Zimmer’s scheme quickly and believes the chemistry the defensive linemen have is the reason that the Vikings are still scratching the surface of how dominant they potentially can be.
“We have good communication out there,” Hunter said. “What we need to do is continue to build on what we did last year. We go out there, we do our jobs and we listen to coaches. When we do that, we have the chance to win every game we play.”
The ease with which the defensive ends work together in practice, film study and in games has translated itself onto the field. Griffen and Robison are the steadying influence, but the same formula that has brought them success also led to Hunter finishing second in sacks and fellow backup DE Justin Trattou tied for second on the team in interceptions with two in very limited duty.
They have all enjoyed varying levels of success because they have become indoctrinated in focusing on their individual role in the bigger defensive scheme. If Hunter’s job is to rush the passer on one play or help steer the play in the other direction or hold his ground and take away a crossing throwing lane, the more all of them stick to their limited assignment in the bigger mission has led to their success as individuals and a group.
“The biggest key for all of us is to stick to the assignment and get the job done,” Hunter said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s me or B-Rob or Griff or J.T. It doesn’t matter who it is. We’re all expected to go in and do our assignments when we’re in there. Basically, the coaches are always putting us in the best position to make plays. You don’t worry about anything when you go out there. You just get the play call and execute it. Every person is going to get their plays. You just have to be patient, because they will come.”
There has been a lot of chatter that Hunter should be given a larger role in the defense, but, for now, the Vikings are content in having him used as a part-time player used primarily in plays with passing down-and-distance.
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Hunter is looking forward to taking on more challenges, but understands his job at this point is to be a role player. As such, he’s looking to do as much as he can to be as impactful as possible when his number is called.
“It’s ultimately up to the coaches as to how they decide to use me,” Hunter said. “I know that whenever I go out there that I’ve been coached enough and prepared enough to play whatever they tell me to do. That’s my goal for this year.”