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Danielle Hunter: How to Create A Player


Danielle Hunter shrugs off complimentary nicknames the way he's been shedding blocks on the way to sacking quarterbacks.

There's 'Action Figure' by his Houston-based trainer James Cooper.

'Superhero' was used by Everson Griffen after Minnesota defeated Detroit in Week 9, thanks in no small part to Hunter's 3.5 sacks and 32-yard fumble return touchdown.

Sheldon Richardson opted for 'Create A Player' after the Vikings Week 1 win over the 49ers.

"That's Griff' and Sheldon," Hunter said. "They call me by my name, but when people ask about that, 'That's what he is.' "

Richardson elaborated, "Relentless pass rush, is stout against the run, so it's everything you want in a young defensive end."

Sure, Hunter has the look befitting of a cape in a comic book or a digitally enhanced addition to Madden. His current rating in Madden '19 is up to an 87. It was 84 when the game was released and shows an impressive climb from the 65 that he received at the launch of Madden '16 before his first NFL snap.

As for NFL rankings, Hunter is entering Sunday's game with 11.5 sacks, which is second in the league and one shy of his career high from 2016.

There's more to Hunter's success than his chiseled physique, starting with a humble demeanor and learner's mentality that he's displayed from the day he became a Viking as a third-round pick in 2015.

His defensive line coach at LSU, Brick Haley, stressed the importance of taking notes, so he started soaking up information from Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson. Hunter has filled five notebooks and is going on a sixth.

All of the learning is being applied on the field, with each rep enabling Hunter to play more freely and forcefully, concurrently building his reputation throughout the NFL.

"He's a great athlete, number one, with great length and size," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer before adding, "He's a guy that doesn't think he's a superstar. He thinks he's one of the guys. He just tries to get better every single day.

"A lot of times, young guys are paint-by-the-numbers guys, but he's a guy, that if a tackle oversets him, he comes underneath," Zimmer continued. "If [a tackle] short sets him, he beats him around the corner. If [a tackle] sits down on him, he'll long-arm him and work the second move off of him. That's the development I see in him. It's been going on for maybe a year and a half now, maybe a year, but he continues to get better. He comes in every day and asks, 'What can I do to get better?'

"Create a player" mode might provide a boost to a team in Madden, but knowing how to "refine a player" is much more applicable in real life.

Patterson's approach begins with learning the "unique qualities" of each player, followed by "basic fundamental foundations that they all have to achieve in order to be a good player."

"Then, you go and help them try to highlight their gifts because they're all different," Patterson added.

The goal is to enable the expression of elite physicality and the qualities of a supreme technician without the player becoming "robotic."

"You can't say, 'Coach told me to do A, B, C, D,' and then go through those checkmarks during a play," Patterson said. "You can't do it, so you've got to get to a point where you put your hand in the ground, the ball turns over, and you just play and trust that your body is going to do what you've been training it to do. That's the part that takes time, for them to get to that point.

"They're all eager to do it the way you want it to be done," Patterson said. "They don't want to make a mistake. There comes a point where they've got to say, 'Forget it. I'm just going to go and trust I can do it right.' That's the thing you can see in the progression with Stephen Weatherly, that that part has happened to his game. Now, he's just lining up and playing."

Patterson believes that offensive linemen are the best-coached groups of players in the NFL because "they know they have to be technicians to be NFL players" and go against defensive linemen with more athleticism.

"Well, if I'm a defensive lineman and all I play off of is my God-given ability, their technique is going to defeat me," Patterson said, "but if I'm a defensive lineman, and I've got great technique, too, then my athleticism gives me the advantage over them because the techniques cancel out, so that's the part that we try to get to."

Zimmer explained of the Vikings approach, "We stay on them to continue to work on their technique, rush angles, hand placement, all kinds of things."

Hunter, whose 33.5 sacks before turning 24 on Oct. 29 tied with Terrell Suggs for the fourth-most by any player in NFL history, is more than fine with all of the refinement.

"In the NFL, people can always get better and better," Hunter said. "It wouldn't make any sense to get to a level and stay at that level because the league adapts, so if you stay the same level that you were [it won't be enough]. You've got to keep leveling up. You need to adapt to the league because the league is always changing."


In addition to scouting opponents, Harrison Smith watches the Vikings defensive line to better prepare himself for the moments in a game when he is sent on a blitz.

"I always watch the D-linemen to see how they work their hands and get their steps right and their hips through," Smith said. "I try to do something, but realistically, not being as long as they are and things like that and not as heavy and strong, some things I can't do. That's just how it is, but definitely I have a great respect for the things they can do and little movements that you might not notice that turn into a lot."

Smith's 3.0 sacks in 2018 have increased his career total to 12, a franchise record among Vikings defensive backs. The All-Pro and Pro Bowler has seen Hunter's progression during film study.

"The more and more moves he has, his explosion, the way he works his hands, the way he works his hips and gets his feet around," Smith said. "It's impressive to see the guy consistently doing that and his strength. He's got a bunch of moves. It's fun to watch because I know how hard it is to do."

In 38 college games at LSU, Hunter totaled 4.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss, but he passed the eyeball test. The Vikings saw tremendous upside in Hunter when they tabbed him with the 88th overall pick in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

In 56 games with the Vikings (27 starts), Hunter has 37 sacks.

Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman explained that the personnel department is increasing its use of analytics to forecast what may not be initially visible by evaluating specific physical and character traits at each position.

"It's funny, our analytics department is evolving right now to the point where we're almost able to clone players," Spielman said. "Not literally, or else you'd see 90 Danielle Hunters walking around, although he can't throw a football worth a crap."

All jokes aside, Spielman added that the Vikings are "always trying" to measure a player's head and heart.

"Because that's what makes the difference to me in this league," Spielman said. "We're getting closer and closer to trying to be able to create some measurements [for head and heart]. Because like I said, Danielle Hunter may not be the player he is if he doesn't have the mental makeup that he has, always wanting to get better and a passion for the game, and what he plays with."


Each week, the Vikings form a rush plan for each opponent.

"We go over who we're going against, each tackle individually and what we need to do in order to beat this guy or what he has trouble with or is good at," said Hunter, who is always ready to put pen to paper.

Hunter emphasized the importance of the Vikings defensive line working together, which has resulted in 32 sacks through 10 games, tied for fifth in the NFL.

Patterson makes sure to illustrate during group study every player's role in creating a sack.

"It takes all of us to get the sack, even though the person that gets the sack gets all the glory," Patterson said. "For the one person to get it, it takes the other three to do their job."

Hunter agreed and said the unit's understanding of the scheme and each other has improved.

"We play off each other and know what each other does when we go out there," Hunter said. "We know what kind of rusher he is. If he's this type of rusher, I can do this and this to help him out or me out. That's basically what it is, we know how we rush now. We are so comfortable rushing each other, we know, 'OK, Sheldon might do this, so if he does this, I do that.'

"We want to be able to rush the passer, so first and foremost, we've got to stop the run, because if we don't do that, we're not going to get an opportunity to [rush the passer]," Hunter said. "Once it comes down to it, when we stop the run, now it's time to pin our ears back and have some fun."

Smith said the collective approach reverberates through the defense.

"I think when you look at games where a bunch of guys are getting in on sacks, and not only that but the run game, really fitting it up and making plays off it, it's a swarm of guys," Smith said. "It's hard to go out there as one guy and make a bunch of plays. That's just not how the NFL is, so when you have more guys making plays, the guy next to you is going to make plays and you're going to make more. They just feed off each other. It's fun to watch and fun to play behind."