Kevin O'Connell heard Za'Darius Smith "long before I saw him come into my office."
"The amount of energy and juice this guy has, the excitement to be a Minnesota Viking was infectious," the Vikings first-year head coach said earlier this week at the Annual League Meeting.
O'Connell and coaches participate in a media breakfast as part of the festivities, and he fielded multiple questions about the outside linebacker who signed as a free agent last week.
Smith's signing continued a week that began with Minnesota's commitment to retain Danielle Hunter and work on a long-term deal, and he talked about the opportunity to form a duo with Hunter.
The Vikings offseason program is scheduled to start on April 11, but it will be a little longer before Organized Team Activity practices in May reveal some of the ways Minnesota might deploy Smith and Hunter.
Until then, O'Connell's comments this week provided some insights. O'Connell noted the challenges he's previously faced when game-planning against Smith.
"What would be the most excitement is just his versatility, his ability to line up in a lot of different spots, both knocking out the run, but also, he rushes the quarterback and has a repertoire of moves from the edge and internally as part of a pressure package with other players," O'Connell said. "He's a guy that doesn't need to just work on his own to get to the quarterback."
O'Connell was asked about the possibility of Hunter dropping into coverage, which he might be asked to do more of as Minnesota shifts from him playing defensive end in a 4-3 base to outside linebacker/edge in a 3-4. Hunter did some of that in certain situations under former Head Coach Mike Zimmer. O'Connell said there were "enough snaps over the past couple of years in games or practices" in which Hunter showed he can.
"He did it either on fire zones or different coverages they had, so I've seen it," O'Connell said. "I think he's got such a baseline level of athletic ability, that as long as you're teaching landmarks and the intent behind dropping into coverage [he'll be successful].
"Are we going to have him covering Cooper Kupp in the slot? Probably not, and if we do, that's more so a question for you to ask me," O'Connell added. "I think guys like that, with his length, his athletic ability, it's almost as much about taking up space in the second level of the defense as it is matching people in coverage, but then that role in base now is really cool because we can kind of free him up sometimes from those interior combinations of keeping those tackles from getting their hands on him and trying to match him up more with tight ends on the perimeter, setting the edges with him and Za'Darius."
O'Connell also noted Smith's productivity from different pre-snap spots, an ability that was showcased when Vikings Assistant Head Coach Mike Pettine was Green Bay's defensive coordinator, and Hunter's potential as a "moveable" piece. Almost all Vikings fans will remember the success Hunter and Everson Griffen had when they were moved to the interior in the 2019 Wild Card playoff game at New Orleans.
View photos of Vikings OLB Za'Darius Smith touring TCO Performance Center and getting introduced to the team for the first time.
"The one cool thing when you study their careers is go look at how many times those guys have been walking around on a third down and hitting four or five different gaps in a game, rushing different matchups," O'Connell said. "Look at how many times they've been on the same side with another rusher, so we can dictate the terms of slides."
An overload principle with Smith and Hunter on the same side of the formation might even be deployed, said O'Connell, a former NFL backup quarterback.
"That's one thing as an offensive coach, I can look at protections and see exactly how to manipulate the turn of the center so we can get 1-on-1 matchups with whoever we want whenever we want," O'Connell said. "That's what keeps me up at night as an offensive coach, but maybe that week, I'll walk down the hall and be a defensive coach. I'll leave it to [Offensive Coordinator] Wes [Phillips] and the guys to figure out how to block all those guys, and I'll go figure out how to get the other team's quarterback on the ground. That's a good part about being the head coach now. You can be in different rooms when you want and nobody can say anything to you."
The pairing of Smith and Hunter is a key part to a front seven of the defense that also expects to benefit from the additions of nose tackle Harrison Phillips and inside linebacker Jordan Hicks. O'Connell also brought up the pairing of defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson with Phillips and their ability to free up Hicks and Eric Kendricks to make plays.
"We're excited for how we're going to deploy [Smith] with Danielle, with Dalvin, with Harrison, with the rest of our outfit to be in attack mode on defense when it comes to those known passing situations," O'Connell said. "I'm really excited about that, and I think that everything he brings, from his experience level in big games to the juice factor and setting the tone of what we want our culture to be like, there's a lot to be excited about with Z."