EAGAN, Minn. — Danielle Hunter looked like, well, Danielle Hunter on the first full day of training camp.
That was evident in a 1-on-1 drill against Brian O'Neill, as the two-time Pro Bowler eased by the right tackle in a move that drew 'oooohs' from onlookers.
"I wasn't really closely watching him, but I sure did notice him," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's one of those guys that, the first time we went 1-on-1 pass rush, he was going against O'Neill, and it was amazing.
"So I heard O'Neill ask him, he said, 'Danielle, what was that move?' And he said, 'I don't know. It just happened.' He's just slithery and [has] long arms and [is] athletic. It's just different," Zimmer added.
O'Neill said Hunter quickly reminded him of his elite ability with just one move.
"Danielle's back, and that gives me plenty of trouble already," O'Neill quipped. "I've got my hands full, for sure.
"He's just bigger, stronger, faster, quicker and more skilled than 99 percent of the people out there. But then he's also willing to talk to you about things that happen," O'Neill later added. "So if he beats you, I can ask him questions, like, 'This is what I saw. This is what you did that made me react this way.' And he's not afraid to lift you up when you do something good, too. But he's just like, 'Hey, man. We're working. We're out here to work, we're out here to get better, and I'm gonna help you get as good as you can.' And hopefully it's reciprocated. Hopefully I push him, as well."
Hunter had 14.5 sacks in back-to-back seasons in 2018 and 2019, but missed the entire 2020 season with a neck injury.
He was essentially a full-go in Wednesday's practice. He turned heads in team sessions, and also looked like his usual self in individual drills.
Minnesota missed his presence in multiple ways a season ago. The Vikings tallied a franchise-low 23 sacks and were among the league's worst teams at stopping the run, too.
And as training camp continues and the 2021 season looms, there's little doubt that the Vikings are counting on Hunter to be an impact player in the months ahead.
"He goes about his business the right way, and he works hard. I think it's going to make everybody better," O'Neill said. "If we get to see that level of competition every day, that can only put us in hard situations, and you want that. You want the game to be easier than practice, and he sure makes practice really hard."
Patrick Peterson added: "I remember when he first walked out here at minicamp before we broke up, I was like, 'Uh, we got us one here for sure.' He's just a freak of nature, just ripped up, has a body of a gladiator."
Quote of the Day
"Being smart, I guess — not saying I'm smart — but being smart enough to understand that if you've got a problem, you've gotta figure out somehow how to fix it. With the players, I mean I've always had a good relationship with the players because they like to be teased and I'm pretty good at teasing. Just like we do with the coaches, we're up in the meeting room and we give each other a hard time about certain things. But I think football-wise and schematics, you find a lot of things that offenses and defenses and special teams are doing and you try to figure out a way to combat it. And you're not afraid to look at something. I talked to the guys today, I said 'Let's look at this. Not today, but let's look at this and just see how it looks because I think this could cause some problems for teams.' "
- Zimmer on adapting and evolving as a coach as he enters his 28thNFL season
2 More Points
Here are two other takeaways from Thursday's media session:
1. O'Neill focused on himself, not contract talks
Zimmer said Thursday that he wants O'Neill to be in Purple long-term. That would obviously mean a contract extension since the 25-year-old is entering the final season of his rookie deal.
"Yeah, we'd love to get Brian done," Zimmer said. "I think they've had conversations, I don't know where it's at. It's always, one side thinks one thing and one side thinks the other, right?"
But O'Neill downplayed any focus on his contract, saying he's only focused on getting better each day and being the best leader possible for his position group.
"My focus is 100 percent on football – this whole camp, this whole week. There's people that handle that – the front office here, and my agent – so it'll play itself out," O'Neill said of contract talks. "I want to be here, I love it here, and we've got to finish what we started.
"It doesn't really feel that different to me, to be honest. I still have a job to do," O'Neill added about his leadership role. "I have a responsibility to play at a high level and come out and be the best version of myself that I can be. But if people need help, I'm willing to take them along, for sure."
Zimmer, however, said he's noticed a change in the 2018 second-round pick over the years.
"I think he's taken a good leadership role with the offensive line now. He's becoming more of what Riley [Reiff] was in the past," Zimmer said. "Very good athlete, had a good year, and there's things he still needs to work on as well. He's a great kid, he's very competitive.
"I remember when he first came out here as a rookie, he's kind of feeling his way around and then about Week 4, you kind of saw him, man, he's got some toughness and physicality about him, he won't back down from — we had some pretty good edge rushers at that time," Zimmer added. "So I think that part, the intensity he has inside himself, and now being more of a leader, I think that's helping quite a bit."
Time will tell on a possible extension, but there's little doubt O'Neill is now looked at as the leader in that room.
2. Smooth transition so far on staff
The first few days of camp has included a transition for the coaching staff.
Rick Dennison, who spent the past two seasons as the team's offensive line coach and run game coordinator, is now a Senior Offensive Advisor on staff due to COVID-19 protocols set by the NFL and NFLPA.
Phil Rauscher has been elevated to the Vikings offensive line coach after being the assistant under Dennison in 2020. Minnesota also hired Ben Steele to be the new assistant offensive line coach.
And it's been so far, so good with that transition.
"It's gone smooth because Coach Dennison is still a part of our staff," said Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak. "Phil has been with [several coaches] for many years and was with Rick in lockstep last season.
"And I see it as an opportunity to gain an extra coach here now that we have Coach Steele," Kubiak added. "So we've got three great offensive minds. Was there a little adjustment? Yes. But I think we're in good shape with the coaches we have."
Added O'Neill: "It's been great. I really enjoyed our first day with Phil yesterday and Coach Steele, and I have all the confidence in the world that they're going to do a great job. We've known Phil for a while, so I don't think it's gonna be too much of a change, too much of anything different."
Rauscher has six seasons of NFL coaching experience with Denver (2015-17), Washington (2018-19) and Minnesota, nearly all of it in the wide-zone run scheme the Vikings run.
And while Rauscher can be a bit loud at times at practice, him being well-versed in the system helps him teach the finer points on the field.
"Really excited for Phil," Kubiak said. "I have a lot of confidence in him, I know Coach Zimmer does, too, and still, Coach Dennsion will be with us all the way."
Kubiak noted he didn't know of Steele before he recently joined the staff, but has been impressed with his work ethic thus far.
"I know some guys on our staff and Phil had a relationship with Ben, so I'll let them speak to it," Kubiak said. "I just know we're really fortunate to have him. He's been a real blessing thus far. He's on top of his game. We're lucky – the offensive line, those guys – I'm glad to have Ben help them out, help them grow."
The Vikings will practice without pads Thursday and Friday before hosting the annual Night Practice on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at TCO Stadium. Tickets and parking passes for the highly anticipated evening session can be found here.