ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Danielle Hunter / Za’Darius Smith tandem could be gold rush for Vikings

If both players can stay healthy, Minnesota should have a couple of the best pass rushers in the league.

SPORTS-VIKINGS-HUNTER-BACK-FROM-ANOTHER-1-MS.jpg
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter practices at the TCO Performance Center practice fields in Eagan, Minn., on May 17.
Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune / TNS
We are part of The Trust Project.

EAGAN, Minn. -- Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith worked off to the side during the opening minutes of Wednesday’s practice at TCO Performance Center in Eagan.

For roughly 15 minutes, Hunter and Smith practiced an array of pass-rushing moves under the watchful eye of outside linebackers coach Mike Smith while the rest of the Vikings participated in various individual drills.

If Hunter executed a move to perfection, Smith immediately tried to mimic him. If Smith added something else to his arsenal, Hunter quickly tried to learn it on the fly. The friendly competition was the living embodiment of the adage, “Iron sharpens iron.”

“I think they’re going to help each other,” Mike Smith said. “I think they both play well off each other. They both kind of bring a different kind of skill set when we watch them. It’s good to have both of them. You’ve got to have that in this league to be successful.”

SPORTS-FBN-VIKINGS-SMITH-LA
Green Bay Packers linebacker Za'Darius Smith celebrtates his sack on Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff during an NFC Divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Jan. 16, 2021. The Minnesota Vikings signed the former Packers pass rusher this offseason.
Wally Skalij / TNS

In theory, the Vikings should have an elite pass-rushing tandem this season with Hunter (60½ career sacks) and Smith (44½ career sacks) leading the charge. In practice, that dominance off the edge will largely hinge on whether both players can stay on the field.

ADVERTISEMENT

After becoming the youngest player in NFL history to record 50 sacks, Hunter missed all of the 2020 season with a neck injury, then half of the 2021 season with a pectoral injury. As a member of the rival Green Bay Packers last season, Smith needed surgery to fix a back injury that lingered for far too long.

If the past month is any indication, Hunter and Smith are back to full strength. They have been deployed in a multitude of ways as Mike Smith teaches the Vikings’ shift to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.

“You guys can look at my history and where I’ve been,” said Mike Smith, who has coached as a part of a 3-4 scheme in the past. “I’m going to put my best on their worst.”

MORE MINNESOTA VIKINGS COVERAGE:
Pro
Darrisaw has drawn comparisons to a young Williams, including from the star himself
Pro
'He’s always been one of my favorite guys, not only as a football player but also as a person,' Shanahan said
Pro
Aside from getting to watch Lance in action, the Marshall football program also got to chat with former Vikings linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber for a few minutes. Both former players offered words of encouragement heading into this season.
Pro
While it has become customary for NFL teams to get into some scuffles during joint practices, it doesn’t sound like that’s going to be an issue with the Vikings and 49ers.
Pro
The kid from Marshall, Minn., is the unquestioned starter for the San Francisco 49ers heading into this season.
Pro
He tested positive last Thursday and sat out Sunday’s preseason opener, a 26-20 loss at Las Vegas. He returned to the team facility on Tuesday, when the Vikings did not have a formal practice, and was back under center Wednesday.
Pro
The next roster deadline comes in exactly a week when the Vikings have to get their roster down to 80 players.
Pro
The teams will practice against each other this week ahead of Saturday’s preseason game.
Pro
In his preseason debut, first-round pick was in the starting lineup and on the field for 34 defensive plays.
Pro
The second-year quarterback out of Texas A&M looked good in Minnesota’s preseason opener, completing 9 of 14 passes for 119 yards and the two touchdowns. He had a sparkling passer rating of 130.7.

That proved to be the case throughout the spring as Hunter and Smith moved freely across the field, sometimes rushing off the edge, sometimes rushing up the middle. “You’re not playing one side or the other, which they have been used to here,” Mike Smith said. “It doesn’t work like that.”

It’s been a big change for Hunter, who has played defensive end throughout his career — with great success. He has had to get used to standing up pre-snap this spring rather than starting each play with his hand in the ground.

How has Hunter taken to his new role?

“He’s loving it,” Mike Smith said. “The package we have where we see Z rushing up the middle and doing that type stuff, now D is getting to do it. He’s like a kid in a candy shop.”

It helps that Hunter has been able to learn from his new linemate: Smith has played in a 3-4 scheme throughout his career and knows the tricks of the trade. It’s not a coincidence that they have been working off to the side to start each practice.

ADVERTISEMENT

“They became really close,” said Mike Smith, who joked that it took both players a few days to warm up to each other. “After that first week, man, they are inseparable. That’s good. That’s how it needs to be. All those guys up front are a family, and they work together and all that type of good stuff. That’s when it clicks.”

______________________________________________________

This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

Related Topics: MINNESOTA VIKINGS
What to read next
Pro
On Sunday, the team that he helped win two World Series titles and now calls games for will induct Gladden into the Twins Hall of Fame.
Pro
Grady replaces longtime voice Dave Benz, whose contract was not renewed this offseason
Pro
Walker posted 10 goals and 16 assists as a freshman, 11 goals and 19 assists as a sophomore, 13 goals and 16 assists as a junior, and finally, 14 goals and 13 assists as a senior at the U of M.
Pro
Minnesota’s rotation just hasn’t been very good when pitching deep into games