Crossing the St. Croix River from Wisconsin into Minnesota is referred to as coming from “the other side” in the Vikings locker room at TCO Performance Center.
Za’Darius Smith says he “came to” the other side by joining the Vikings this offseason after 33 games in three Packers seasons. Danielle Hunter asserts Smith actually “came from” the other side in Green Bay, where the Packers set up the Vikings’ next potentially potent pass-rushing pair by cutting Smith in March.
Hunter and Smith have agreed on pretty much everything else while quickly forming a bond this summer under new outside linebackers coach Mike Smith, who also defected from the Packers.
“They came from the other side, but they’re good people,” Hunter said. “They taught the room a lot of things, like new pass rushing things and all that stuff — and I’m always eager to learn.”
Smith, who turned 30 on Thursday, was quick to note the potential of another strong purple pass rush during his free-agent visit to Eagan this spring, when he posted “Meet at the Quarterback 2.0” on social media while touring the Vikings museum before signing a three-year, $42 million contract.
The nod to the Purple People Eaters’ motto set a lofty bar that Hunter and Smith are committed to reaching as both return from injuries and they learn to play together. Neither played in a preseason game, so fans will get their first look at the duo in action in Sunday’s season opener against the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Smith, who missed all but one regular-season game in 2021 due to a back injury, is especially anxious to make his Vikings debut. That acknowledgement came with a grin when asked about playing against the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“I’ve been preparing for this time to come for a while now,” Smith said. “Hopefully we get a chance to take him down a couple times.”
The Vikings have a better chance to do that with Hunter and Smith, who strengthened their bond during training camp in vacant corners of the TCO practice fields.
They were inseparable when younger players ran through special teams or position drills at the beginning of practices. They refined on-field technique with their position coach, Mike Smith, or shared off-field laughs that are viewed as a critical ingredient to their chemistry.
“When all those guys up front are a family and they work together,” Mike Smith said, “that’s when it clicks. I’ve been fortunate to be part of a lot of good teams with a lot of good rushers, and there ain’t no doubt about it, they’re one of the top [duos] in the league.”
There’s a natural kinship as the 2015 mid-round draft picks — Hunter a third-rounder out of LSU and Smith a fourth-rounder out of Kentucky — shared similar paths and attitudes. They first met at the Pro Bowl after the 2019 season, a connection that left Hunter signing a premonition on a Vikings jersey for Smith: “Hopefully we’ll be on the same team one day.”
They complement each other off the field, too.
“They mesh so well because they’re night and day,” said Vikings cornerback Chandon Sullivan, Smith’s former Packers teammate who has a locker between Hunter and Smith. “Danielle, he’s real quiet and reserved and everybody knows ‘Z,’ he’s enthusiastic, outgoing, loud.”
The Vikings defense, ranked 30th last season, is banking on Hunter and Smith to return to their Pro Bowl forms in a refurbished scheme under coordinator Ed Donatell.
Smith isn’t just a prized free-agent acquisition, but a pivotal instructor to Vikings teammates. He has years of experience in similar defenses in Green Bay and Baltimore. In addition to the money and playing the Packers twice per season, Smith said he was drawn to Minnesota by a chance to lead a turnaround.
“It was a big part of the recruitment,” Smith said. “You’re going to be the guy who’s basically moving around the defense and helping the younger guys.”
Leader has been one of many new roles for Hunter, who turns 28 next month and itches to play after being limited to seven of 33 games the past two years due to neck and pectoral injuries.
The Vikings’ depth chart is young and inexperienced with four edge rushers — D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones, Luiji Vilain and Janarius Robinson — who are 24 years old or younger. Hunter and Smith frequently led the group in sprints after camp practices.
“Mentoring them now,” Hunter said. “I’m in that phase of my life. But everything has been pretty good. I’m just eager to play ball again. Had some long days, longer nights, but I’m ready to go.”
Hunter is also learning how to play versatile roles as a stand-up outside linebacker after seven seasons as a 4-3 defensive end for the Vikings. He’s adjusting his vision and thought process at the line of scrimmage to account for additional duties, including pass coverage, for a defense that will move him around.
Smith has helped Hunter with everything from big-picture playbook concepts to small-scale pass rushing moves.
“He’s shown me things that I’ve never known or been able to use before,” Hunter said. “I’m able to show him things that I know and share to the group. So it’s kind of like I’m helping him out, he’s helping me out. Us coming together, we’ll be able to do a lot of damage on the field.”
Vikings coaches plan to deploy Hunter and Smith around the formation — on opposite ends, or both in the middle, or both on the same side. That is another adjustment for Hunter, who primarily aligned on the defense’s left side (vs. right tackles) under former head coach Mike Zimmer.
When Smith moves inside against guards and the center, Hunter has closely watched how he processes the offense’s formation and what to do after the snap. Hunter spent this offseason learning more about interior protection assignments for offensive linemen. If Hunter can better understand how interior protections are set, he can attack their weaknesses.
“I’m starting to see things about being on the inside and rushing against guards, the center,” Hunter said. “Being able to see things faster with him telling me what he knows.”
Mike Smith, the position coach, believes Hunter’s learning curve should be hastened by Za’Darius Smith’s assistance and Hunter’s off-the-charts athleticism that could thrive with more room to operate.
They’re already planning celebrations. Throughout camp, the pair were spotted refining handshakes and sack dances during down moments in practices. They were outed in a video on the team website practicing the Kid ‘n Play kick-step dance, which Hunter would not confirm was in their plans.
Teammates hope Hunter and Smith will be dancing frequently, reviving a dormant pass rush and writing their own chapter in the franchise’s illustrious defensive history.
“We haven’t had those big guys around here in a while,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “Get some more sacks out there. Danielle doing his dance with him and ‘Z.’ It’s going to be fun for us.”