After Saturday night’s practice at TCO Stadium, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer addressed the crowd and made a special introduction.
“I want to welcome back Number 99, Danielle Hunter,” Zimmer said.
The fans laughed. And Hunter stepped on the microphone.
“It’s good to be back,” he said.
Hunter, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end, missed all previous seasons after having surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. But as far as Zimmer is concerned, he looks like the same guy so far, who had 14½ sacks in both 2018 and 2019.
Hunter did not attend a mandatory minicamp in June because he said the Vikings wanted to be “cautious” with him. So, when Hunter took the field last Wednesday for the start of training camp, it was his first action in nearly a year. On Monday, Hunter is expected to participate in the camp’s first practice with the pad.
“He looks great,” Zimmer said before Saturday’s practice. “Really good at the run game, really good at the passing game. Obviously, it’s good to have him back out there. He’s a really smart kid, very proud of what he’s trying to do Really good with the rest. As far as now becoming one of the veteran leaders of the group. And I’m glad we have him. Wish we had 10 more like him.”
Despite such high praise from Zimmer, Hunter insists he hasn’t returned after sitting out a season.
“I’m definitely not where I want to be,” he said. “I will continue to improve and remove rust every day.”
So what needs to be done to repair it?
“Just basic D-line stuff, my hands and eyes and feet where they need to be,” he said. “You can’t really train to be in football shape, so there’s a lot going on. … There’s still a way to go. … I think it’s probably by the end of (August) Or something like that will happen. Just getting in there, knowing the plays and doing what I want to do.”
The Vikings don’t start the regular season in Cincinnati until September 12, so the timetable Hunter has given would seem welcome news. After all, they were definitely missing him last year.
The Vikings had just 23 sacks throughout the season, a huge drop from 50 in 2018 and 48 in 2019. They are hoping that can be replaced with a defensive line, with all four starts from 2020 expected to be different.
In addition to Hunter coming back, other starters are expected to tackle Michael Pearce, who opted out of last season due to the coronavirus pandemic, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, a free-agent signe, and defensive tackle. End Stephen Weatherly, who returned after initially playing with Minnesota from 2016–19.
Hunter has started on the left since entering the NFL in 2015, and could do the same in 2021. But the Vikings are also using him on the right side in camp.
“We want to make sure we can take him to a lot of different places,” Zimmer said.
Hunter said he is equally comfortable on either side of the line. He said that he is also comfortable if the Vikings want him to return to coverage.
Mostly, though, the Vikings want Hunter, who turns 27 in October, to go after the quarterback. In December 2019, 40 days after his 25th birthday, Hunter became the youngest player in NFL history to record 50 sacks, making 54½ this season.
“It’s very satisfying to be able to go out there and practice with my teammates,” Hunter said of coming back in 2021. “Whereas last year, I was just sitting on the sidelines and watching. It was really tough. To be able to come here and be around my coaches and my teammates is just a blessing.”