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Danielle Hunter's Return to Action & Quick Bond with Za'Darius Smith

EAGAN, Minn. — It would be easy for the 2021 Cowboys game in which Danielle Hunter suffered a season-ending injury to be at the forefront of his mind.

But Tuesday during his media session, Hunter recalled the contest against the Cardinals five weeks earlier.

He had just participated in Minnesota's second Organized Team Activity practice of 2022 and was asked about the Vikings incorporating more 3-4 base principles this year under new Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell.

"Last year we played 3-4 a little bit. You guys remember the Arizona game," Hunter said. "That game was pretty fun. I feel a little bit more free, playing 3-4. I mean, we go back and forth, but playing 3-4 kind of reminds me of playing the Arizona game last year."

Hunter recorded 3.0 sacks of Cardinals QB Kyler Murray in Week 2 last season. The outburst helped him total 6.0 sacks in his first five starts of 2021, which followed rehab efforts after a 2020 neck injury.

Everything was rolling for Hunter until suffered a torn pectoral muscle against the Cowboys.

The Vikings chances of restoring their defense, took a big hit. Minnesota finished 24th in points against and 30th in yards allowed, leading to multiple changes this offseason.

That was a far fall from 2017 when the Vikings led the NFL in both categories during Hunter's first season as a starter. Minnesota went a combined 31-16-1 with Hunter opening games from 2017-19; the Vikings have gone 12-14 in games without Hunter in the starting lineup the past two seasons. The Vikings also fell to the Cowboys after he left the game.

Hunter is now back on the field and learning new roles and responsibilities in Donatell's scheme. He has the chance to partner with fellow 2015 draft pick and two-time Pro Bowler Za'Darius Smith, who signed with Minnesota this offseason.

Smith thrived in Green Bay under current Vikings assistants Mike Pettine and Mike Smith and had previously connected with Hunter at the Pro Bowl.

"It was fun. I remember we were out there. We kind of talked a lot," Hunter said. "I remember we were going out onto the field together, he had a pick. Right after he said that, he went out there and had a pick at outside linebacker. I thought that was pretty cool."

Smith, then a member of the Packers, recalled after joining the Vikings that Hunter had said, " 'Man you never know, Z. We may end up on the same team.' And it's crazy that I'm saying this, but he really said that and he actually signed a jersey and it has that on the jersey from 2019."

Hunter said the Pro Bowl interactions led him to view Smith as a "cool, young, good overall character" and that he's enjoyed strengthening the bond as teammates beyond an all-star game.

Smith said he's looking forward to joining forces with Hunter.

"To be able to be here and have a chance to be on the opposite side of him is wonderful, man. I just can't wait," Smith said.

"I think we were talking yesterday about some of the moves that we could do coming out of the tunnel [at U.S. Bank Stadium]," he added. "I think me and 'D' [are] gonna come up with something great for the fans. So that will be cool. I just can't wait for the experience."

Hunter's career trajectory began as a third-round pick who stacked minimal stats (4.5 career sacks) at LSU. Just 20 years old and the time of his selection, Hunter brought a learner's mentality with him to the NFL. He filled notebooks and soaked up teaching and technique refinements.

He was a reserve as a rookie, appearing in 14 games in 2015 when he recorded 6.0 sacks. That total more than doubled in 2016 when he led Minnesota with 12.5 sacks. That total included a safety of Cam Newton in Week 3 two weeks after he returned a fumble 24 yards for a touchdown at Tennessee.

Hunter became a starter in 2017 when veteran Brian Robison unselfishly supported the move. The two worked with Everson Griffen to total 24 sacks and power a unit that led the NFL in points against, yards against, passing touchdowns allowed and third-down conversions yielded. Hunter recorded 7.0 of those 24 sacks while being solid against the run.

He broke through in 2018 with his first of two consecutive Pro Bowl seasons that featured 14.5 sacks in back-to-back campaigns, becoming the first Viking to record that many in consecutive seasons since Jared Allen (2008-09).

After starting every game for three consecutive seasons, Hunter suffered what was initially described as a "tweak" during the opening of 2020 training camp before players put on the pads. The injury eventually required surgery and sidelined him for all of 2020.

He returned last year only to have to go through another long rehab process. Teammates have admired his approach through it all.

Dalvin Cook, who suffered a torn ACL four games into his NFL career, credited Hunter's resolve.

"Coming back from injury is always tough. I've done been there. I've been down that road," Cook said. "Just his determination. You've been around 'D.' He don't talk a lot, but once he gets comfortable with you, he talks with you. Just being around him, for him not to get discouraged or down, looking to attack, looking for the next day, looking for the next opportunity for him to get out here. I'm just glad to have him back, because y'all know 'D' [is] a monster, so we need him out there on the field."