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Za'Darius Smith Ready to Form 'Best Duo' With Danielle Hunter

EAGAN, Minn. — Quarterbacks around the NFC, and in the NFL, likely perked up Tuesday afternoon.

Za'Darius Smith is now a member of the Minnesota Vikings, and the former Packers star now hopes to form one of the league's top pass-rushing tandems with Danielle Hunter.

Smith and Hunter officially became teammates in Minnesota on Tuesday, but their relationship goes back a few years.

And it might have been emboldened by a prophetic message from Hunter after the 2019 regular season, when the two were Pro Bowlers for the NFC.

"You know, we came out together in 2015 in the draft," Smith said Tuesday afternoon at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. "So going through the combine and everything, I got a chance to sit down with him. He was an LSU guy, so we always joke back and forth how they beat us when I was with Kentucky.

View photos of Vikings OLB Za'Darius Smith touring TCO Performance Center and getting introduced to the team for the first time.

"Just knowing him and going into the Pro Bowl [after] 2019, I got a chance to sit down with him and talk to him," Smith continued. "And he was like, '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.

"He actually signed a jersey, and it has that on the jersey," Smith added. "So yeah, big shout out to Danielle Hunter, man. I'm happy to be here to get a chance to play with him."

Smith said the two texted again yesterday when Smith was at TCO Performance Center for a visit. Visions of getting to opposing quarterbacks together danced in Smith's head, perhaps because of a shrine at the Minnesota Vikings Museum he saw that pays homage to the Purple People Eaters.

"I got a chance yesterday to go to the museum, and they were just telling me a lot of things about a lot of history here," Smith said. "They were like these four guys right here [were] in the Pro Bowl at the time. I was like, 'No way.'

"And it said Purple People Eaters," Smith added. "And I was like, 'OK. Meet at the quarterback.' That's some slogan that we can keep going here and hopefully be going for the next couple of years."

There's no doubt Smith and Hunter have the potential and talent to be among the league's top tandems at getting to the quarterback.

But the key to that success will be health, as the players have missed a combined 42 games in the past two seasons.

Hunter missed all of 2020 with a neck injury before tearing his pec in Minnesota's seventh game of 2021. Smith, meanwhile, played just 18 snaps in Green Bay's season opener with a back injury and missed the remainder of the regular season.

Smith returned for the playoffs and had a sack against the 49ers, playing 19 snaps for the Packers in their Divisional Round home loss.

The 29-year-old proclaimed himself ready to go Tuesday after undergoing surgery for a bulging disc in his back last season.

"Coming into that season, I kind of felt something when I was in the weight room and it was my lower back," Smith said. "A lot of athletes have bulging discs, so what they said was my bulging disc was a little bigger than normal.

"I went to [Los Angeles], got [surgery] done with my doctor. One of the best doctors out there. Completed the surgery. I don't know too many people [who] come back from back surgery," Smith added. "But I came back in four months, got a chance to practice for three weeks before that playoff game. As you can see, I'm as healthy as ever. Just did my physical. Everything's clear. So excited man. Back is good."

Smith will hope to recapture the form he had in 2019 and 2020 when he earned back-to-back Pro Bowl honors and terrorized the rest of the league.

He recorded careers highs in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (17) in 2019 to make his first Pro Bowl. Smith followed that up with another Pro Bowl season with 12.5 sacks, also earning Second-Team All-Pro honors from The Associated Press.

"He's a proven player with an extensive track record in this league," said Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. "He's normally a motivated player but I think he's extra motivated to resume his position among the league's best where he belongs."

A pair of Smith's coaches from that stint — Mike Smith and Mike Pettine — are now on Minnesota's defensive staff.

And Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said that pair were more than vocal in helping get the linebacker in Purple.

"Mike Smith and Mike Pettine … those two guys stood on the table to get this player here and they couldn't be more excited about having him here," O'Connell said.

Smith, who has 44.5 career sacks, has plenty of experience in a 3-4 defensive scheme. And he said it was Pettine who helped discover his versatility.

In 2020, for example, Smith lined up had 328 snaps at the right outside linebacker spot and lined up 293 times at left outside linebacker. But he also moved up and down the line, including spending time at defensive tackle.

"I didn't even know I had that in me. Mike Pettine did. He saw it before I even saw it," Smith said. "He made situations for me where he could create 1-on-1s, for me basically to go 1-on-1 up on the center, or up on the guard or on the tackle.

"It's big for me to move around like that. I can go now watch film on each guy and pick the weakest link, you know," Smith added. "I'm just happy that Coach Mike Pettine drew that up and for that to be a Rover position that I can dominate at if so, if they run that here in Minnesota."

When healthy, Smith has had plenty of success in his career, including against his new team.

He tallied 4.5 total sacks in four games in 2019 and 2020 against the Vikings. And the linebacker was downright dominant in Week 16 of the 2019 season, tallying 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss in a 23-10 Packers win that clinched the NFC North and was Green Bay's first victory at U.S Bank Stadium.

Now, Minnesota hopes Smith can boost the Vikings pass rush against the likes of Aaron Rodgers and others in the NFC in order to help the Vikings get back to the postseason after a few years away.

"It's going to be fun [to go against Rodgers]. I talked to Danielle yesterday and I told him that I may be coming here and signing," Smith said. "And he was like 'OK, now we can be one of the best duos in the league.'

"Being excited about that, a lot of quarterbacks, they're going to have to fear us," Smith added. "It's going to be good at the end because we're facing some great teams in the North. But our main focus right now is to win the North. To get in and help my teammates complete that, I'm all for it."