Following Saturday’s night practice at TCO Stadium, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer addressed the crowd and made a special introduction.

“I’d like to welcome back number 99, Danielle Hunter,” Zimmer said.

The fans roared. And Hunter stepped to the microphone.

“It’s good to be back,” he said.

Hunter, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end, missed all of last season after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. But as far as Zimmer is concerned, he looks so far like the same guy who had 14½ sacks in both 2018 and 2019.

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Hunter did not take part in the Vikings’ mandatory minicamp in June because he said the team wanted to be “cautious” with him. So, when he took the field for the start of training camp last Wednesday, it was his first practice action since last August. On Monday, Hunter is expected to take part in the first practice of camp with pads.

“He’s looked terrific,” Zimmer said before Saturday’s practice. “Really good in the run game, really good in the passing game. It’s nice to have him back out there, obviously. He’s a really smart kid, takes a lot of pride in what he’s trying to do. Really good with the rest of the guys as far as now becoming one of the veteran leaders in 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’s not all the way back after sitting out a season.

“I’m definitely not where I want to be,” he said. “I’ll just continue each and every day to improve and get the rustiness off.”

So what does he need to improve?

“Just basic D-line stuff, getting my hands and eyes and feet where they need to be,” he said. “You can’t really train for being in football shape, so that’s what’s pretty much going on right now. … There’s still a ways to go. … I think that’ll probably come by the end of (August) or something like that. There’s just getting in there, knowing the plays and doing what I need to do.”

The Vikings don’t start the regular season until Sept. 12 at Cincinnati, so the timetable Hunter gave would seem to be welcome news. After all, they sure missed him last year.

The Vikings had just 23 sacks all of all season, a huge drop-off from their 50 sacks in 2018 and 48 in 2019. They are hoping that number goes back up with a defensive line expected to have four new four starters from 2020.

In addition to Hunter, the other starters are expected to be nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out of last season due to the coronavirus pandemic; defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, a free-agent signee, and defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who returned after playing for the Vikings from 2016-19.

Hunter has started on the left side of the line since entering the NFL in 2015, and that might continue in 2021. But the Vikings also have been using him on the right side in camp.

“We want to make sure that we can move him around to a lot of different places,” Zimmer said.

Hunter said he’s comfortable on either side of the line. He said he’s also comfortable if the Vikings want him to drop back into 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, and he has 54½ career sacks entering this season.

“It’s very satisfying being able to go out there and practice with my teammates,” Hunter said of being back in 2021. “Whereas last year, I was just sitting on the side watching. That was really hard. It’s just a blessing to be able to come out here and be around my coaches and my teammates.”