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Danielle Hunter / Za’Darius Smith tandem could be gold rush for Vikings

If both players can stay healthy, Minnesota should have a couple of the best pass rushers in the league.

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Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter practices at the TCO Performance Center practice fields in Eagan, Minn., on May 17.
Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune / TNS
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EAGAN, Minn. -- Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith worked off to the side during the opening minutes of Wednesday’s practice at TCO Performance Center in Eagan.

For roughly 15 minutes, Hunter and Smith practiced an array of pass-rushing moves under the watchful eye of outside linebackers coach Mike Smith while the rest of the Vikings participated in various individual drills.

If Hunter executed a move to perfection, Smith immediately tried to mimic him. If Smith added something else to his arsenal, Hunter quickly tried to learn it on the fly. The friendly competition was the living embodiment of the adage, “Iron sharpens iron.”

“I think they’re going to help each other,” Mike Smith said. “I think they both play well off each other. They both kind of bring a different kind of skill set when we watch them. It’s good to have both of them. You’ve got to have that in this league to be successful.”

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Green Bay Packers linebacker Za'Darius Smith celebrtates his sack on Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff during an NFC Divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Jan. 16, 2021. The Minnesota Vikings signed the former Packers pass rusher this offseason.
Wally Skalij / TNS

In theory, the Vikings should have an elite pass-rushing tandem this season with Hunter (60½ career sacks) and Smith (44½ career sacks) leading the charge. In practice, that dominance off the edge will largely hinge on whether both players can stay on the field.

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After becoming the youngest player in NFL history to record 50 sacks, Hunter missed all of the 2020 season with a neck injury, then half of the 2021 season with a pectoral injury. As a member of the rival Green Bay Packers last season, Smith needed surgery to fix a back injury that lingered for far too long.

If the past month is any indication, Hunter and Smith are back to full strength. They have been deployed in a multitude of ways as Mike Smith teaches the Vikings’ shift to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.

“You guys can look at my history and where I’ve been,” said Mike Smith, who has coached as a part of a 3-4 scheme in the past. “I’m going to put my best on their worst.”

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Before Monday, Minnesota had four practices at camp in shorts and helmets. The NFL allows only 11 padded practices during camp, so defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said the Vikings must “really have a sharp eye” on player evaluations.

That proved to be the case throughout the spring as Hunter and Smith moved freely across the field, sometimes rushing off the edge, sometimes rushing up the middle. “You’re not playing one side or the other, which they have been used to here,” Mike Smith said. “It doesn’t work like that.”

It’s been a big change for Hunter, who has played defensive end throughout his career — with great success. He has had to get used to standing up pre-snap this spring rather than starting each play with his hand in the ground.

How has Hunter taken to his new role?

“He’s loving it,” Mike Smith said. “The package we have where we see Z rushing up the middle and doing that type stuff, now D is getting to do it. He’s like a kid in a candy shop.”

It helps that Hunter has been able to learn from his new linemate: Smith has played in a 3-4 scheme throughout his career and knows the tricks of the trade. It’s not a coincidence that they have been working off to the side to start each practice.

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“They became really close,” said Mike Smith, who joked that it took both players a few days to warm up to each other. “After that first week, man, they are inseparable. That’s good. That’s how it needs to be. All those guys up front are a family, and they work together and all that type of good stuff. That’s when it clicks.”

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