Tank Williams is out for the season. Willie Offord is gone, released on the final rounds of cuts.
Those two facts leave Will Hunter, a rookie free agent with the New York Jets in 2003, as the Vikings' top backup at safety.
Darren Sharper is the Pro Bowler returning to his starting position, while Dwight Smith took the long-about route to replacing Corey Chavous as the other starter. Williams was once projected to be Chavous' replacement, but another season-ending injury in training camp left the Vikings feeling fortunate they had inked Smith to a free agent contract in July after the New Orleans Saints released him. Finally, the Vikings selected hard-hitting Greg Blue in the fifth round of April's draft.
All of that movement at safety had to leave Hunter's head swimming a bit.
"Going into camp, I knew we had a lot of good safeties going in – Willie O., Sharper, Dwight and Tank (Williams). We had four good guys and then I know they drafted Blue. He's going to be good. He's a young guy, but he's got a lot of potential to be good," Hunter said. "My niche last year was special teams, so I knew I had to be a better player this year than I was last year as far as special teams go. If I happen to get some reps on defense, that's OK, but I'd like to excel on special teams this year."
That's exactly where Hunter has made his mark and cut out a role for himself for three years as he hopes to build confidence with the defensive coaches. But the surprise to some was that Hunter, who had only four tackles on defense in a limited role last year, beat out Offord, a former third-round draft choice, as the top backup at safety.
"They always say, ‘Put it on tape.' That's what's going to carry you over, and the coaches actually see that. I guess I did more good things on tape than he did," Hunter said. "It's unfortunate because Willie's a good player. He's going to be somewhere and he may end up starting – you never know because he's that good."
But Hunter was better, at least enough to beat out Offord for a roster spot.
In the preseason, Offord had eight tackles, two interceptions and two passes defensed. Hunter had seven tackles, no interceptions, two passes defensed and a tackle for a loss. But Offord, who entered 2005 as Minnesota's special teams captain, was held without a tackle on coverage units, mainly because of a wrist injury he battled most of the preseason. Hunter, meanwhile, finished tied for third in preseason special teams tackles with three.
That's been his method of operation since getting an opportunity with the Jets in 2003 and then with the Vikings' practice squad with five weeks remaining in the 2004 season.
"When I came out of college, when I went to the Jets, I was playing cornerback and I did really, really well. It was unfortunate I got injured. But at the time I thought, I can do this, I can really do this," Hunter said. "Then when I got injured, depression set in and I was out the rest of that year. But I just came back with a strong attitude and my peoples at home, they've just got my back no matter what. It's very encouraging. They believe in me more than I believe in myself sometimes, but it helps that I've got such a strong background."
Then he had to prove himself to Mike Tice's staff in 2004 and 2005. This year, there was a whole new set of coaches to impress.
"I went from a guy that in the (2005) preseason did really well on special teams, so they kind of let me stick around. I was able to play both safeties when the old staff was here. That helped out too a little bit, and just as I got going and got more familiar with what was going on as far as the games, I kind of stepped up and I think guys looked at me as a leader on special teams and a guy that's going to go out there and produce," Hunter said.
Even so, he came into this season feeling like special teams was still an area he needed in order to make the 53-man roster, and his ability to stay healthy while Offord's 2005 season ended with a knee injury and 2006 preseason was marred with a wrist injury helped give Hunter an edge.
But so did his familiarity with the two defensive coordinators he has worked under at Minnesota. Hunter's start with Jets in 2003 was Cottrell's last year there, and Hunter believes that experience helped bring him to Minnesota in November 2004.
But in between his start with the Jets and his current team, Hunter spent some time with Mike Tomlin in Tampa Bay's summer camps in 2004.
"I was pretty familiar with him. I brought my playbooks back with me when I came—not my playbook but my actual notes that I took by myself. I get to keep those," Hunter said. "I just brought those back when I came here. It was kind of cool to see it now that he's putting it back on the board again."
That gave him an advantage in spring minicamps, but he said the coaches did such a good job of explaining the defense step by step and breaking it down in minicamp that most of the defensive players had a sound understanding by the time training camp opened.
"The thing now is that we have to take that a step farther and see if I can actually do it in a real, live game situation," Hunter said.
So far, his game action has been pretty limited. He has played in 13 games, mostly on special teams, but has managed four defensive tackles in spot duty.
But the way things are shaping up this year, it appears Hunter will be the first man off the bench if Sharper or Smith need to be replaced. He said that might depend on which team the Vikings are playing, but with only rookie Blue and the recently signed Rashad Baker as the other safeties, chances are it will be Hunter getting the call.
That's a far cry from where things stood in late July, when Williams and Sharper were the starters, Smith was the experienced backup and Offord was the other safety expected to make the roster. Now the Vikings have five safeties and Hunter is third in line.
"I always believed that God never puts too much stuff on you that you can't handle," he said. "I just looked at it like, If I'm here, if I'm not here, it's OK because I know that he's going to take care of me. I prefer to be here because I know this is my home, this is a great atmosphere to be in. I know we're going to win a lot of football games here, so I kind of looked at it, but it didn't bother me too much."
He's dodged a lot of roster trimmings in career, but he's also experienced the other end of it, too. That's the life of a former undrafted rookie, and Will Hunter has thick enough skin to be a survivor in that scenario.
"I've been cut three times. At this point, there is nothing nobody can do to me that's going to make me go downhill," he said. "I just keep my head up and grind every day. It's a work day every day I step in here, so I do my best."
Hunter a Survivor at Safety
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