EAGAN, Minn. – With his rookie campaign now in the rearview mirror, defensive end D.J. Wonnum is excited about a new season, new competition and, potentially, a new role?
Wonnum, whom Minnesota drafted 117th overall last season, has occasionally been lining up at linebacker during U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp. He spoke to Twin Cities media members Tuesday afternoon and reminded that while it may be a change at the NFL level, he's dropped into coverage before.
"I did that in college," Wonnum noted, explaining how South Carolina utilized him in its 3-4 system. "I dropped to the flat, curl, different things. I'm kind of used to it, just bringing it back out and doing it in professional football."
He also emphasized that he's always looking for any opportunity to make an impact on the field.
"Just open up my versatility," Wonnum said. "I like running around. I like reacting."
Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson has been known to emphasize flexibility with his defensive linemen.
"It's not just [Wonnum]. All of our ends have to learn how to play somewhat like our 3-techniques and nose play, because there's times that we tighten those guys down and they're not always on the outside shoulder of a tackle or the outside shoulder of a tight end," Patterson said Wednesday. "The techniques that the defensive tackles use when they have to play inside a tackle, they've got to execute those same techniques in the run game.
"That's the reason probably why he's talking to the big guys like, 'When you get caught in a certain position how do you get out of it?' " Patterson continued. "He's watching tape and he sees Dalvin [Tomlinson] in a position where he really should be blocked and he found a way to get out of it. That's probably why he's asking those questions."
Wonnum similarly can pick the brains of linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, two of the league's best at the position.
"Those guys give me pointers, talk to me on the field during plays just to make sure I'm in the right position to make the play and do what I need to do," Wonnum said.
View photos of Vikings players during training camp practice on August 3 at the TCO Performance Center.
And although he's embracing the multitasking role, Wonnum also continues to focus on improving at the defensive end spot. As a rookie last season, he played 14 games (two starts) and recorded 24 tackles, 3.0 sacks (including one of division rival Aaron Rodgers to force a game-clinching fumble) and a pass defensed.
He made strides throughout last season, and this year he has the chance to learn from Danielle Hunter, who missed all of 2020 with a neck injury.
Wonnum said it's "great" having Hunter back on the field and added that it gives the defensive line an immediate upgrade.
Opposite Hunter, it remains to be seen who will lock down the starting end spot. Wonnum will certainly compete along with Stephen Weatherly, who returned to Minnesota after a season with the Panthers. Jalyn Holmes also is in the mix after starting nine of 14 games at defensive end last season.
"Just [putting] our best foot forward every day, coming out and competing," Wonnum said. "Football is a competition sport, so we do that every day. Just coming out and being the best player I can be."
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Oct. 19, 2021.
He's applying new techniques he learned last year after "welcome to the NFL" experiences against top-notch offensive linemen.
"Offensive linemen in the NFL are different. You can't win off your first move most of the time," he said. "You've got to have counters, different moves, different plans going into games in order to win at rushing the quarterback. Having that my rookie year was a big teaching tool for me."
Patterson stood on a table to bring Wonnum in last spring, and his belief in the youngster – both on and off the field – is only growing.
"I told you guys when we drafted him, I fell in love with him because of who he is as a human being. He's a great, humble person that's a hard worker that's going to do everything the team asks him to do, and he's a tremendous athlete," Patterson said. "So when I had a chance to meet with that young man a year ago, it reminded me of my conversations that I had with Danielle. Very humble. Hard-working. Had his priorities in the right place.
"That's why I fought so hard to try to get that guy here, because those qualities are hard to find when you're a tremendous athlete," Patterson continued. "Usually guys think they're the best thing since sliced bread, you know? Those two guys aren't like that. They're humble, and they want to work hard every day. They've got a drive to improve. Those things are really hard to find as a coach."