Whether or not D.J. Wonnum starts for Vikings on Sunday, he expects to play well
The backup for injured Za’Darius Smith, the third-year pass rusher already has 16 starts, and 10 sacks, under his belt in Minnesota
D.J. Wonnum was talking to a reporter in the Vikings’ TCO Center locker room on Thursday when Danielle Hunter put a hand on his teammate’s shoulder.
“Tell the boys you’ve been doing this, man,” Hunter told Wonnum. “Tell ’em you’ve been doing it.”
He didn’t have to. Anyone who has been watching the Vikings the past few seasons knows what D.J. Wonnum can do. The third-year defensive lineman — now officially an outside linebacker in Ed Donatell’s 3-4 defense — already has an impressive highlight reel.
When that was noted Thursday, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound pass rusher from South Carolina said, “Oh, I’m good. I’m me.”
It’s a big reason the Vikings aren’t worried about pushing Za’Darius Smith to play Sunday’s game in London against the New Orleans Saints, an 8:30 a.m. CDT kickoff that will mark Minnesota’s third regular-season game in Great Britain.
“I’m preparing for the worst, or the best, whatever,” Wonnum said. “If (Smith) is able to go, I’ll continue my role. But if he’s not, then I’ll be able to step up this weekend.”
Smith injured his left knee in last Sunday’s 28-24 victory over Detroit at U.S. Bank Stadium. He finished that game but has missed both of the team’s practices this week. In the Vikings’ three games this season, Wonnum has been the second-team outside linebacker behind Smith.
For the Vikings (2-1), it’s been a luxury. With Hunter lost for the season to a chest injury early last season, Wonnum, 24, started 14 games and finished with 47 tackles, eight sacks and 15 quarterback hits.
A fourth-round pick, 117th overall, in the 2020 draft, Wonnum has been a major part of a defensive line rotation since his rookie season, when he played in 14 games (two starts), and his steady improvement has been conspicuous.
“There’s just a lot to like about him,” Donatell said. “He’s really the same guy every day, and he’s really bright. Those guys usually get better — smart guys that really take to their coaching. He just keeps improving by little margins, and I just think he has a really bright future.”
The Saints have been in London since Monday, and quarterback Jameis Winston has missed both the team’s practices, leaving veteran Andy Dalton — who played in Dallas last season — as the presumptive starter on Sunday.
“It could be either way,” Donatell said. “We’re prepared for both. We have tape on both of them and we’ll take (Dalton’s) last plays in Dallas, take his throws and look at them and see how it relates to the passing game that (the Saints) have, kind of guesstimate.”
Whoever plays quarterback, the Vikings would like to put him on the ground. Last week against the Lions, Minnesota rushers were unable to sack veteran Jared Goff. The Vikings are tied for ninth in the NFL with seven total sacks.
“Yeah, they chipped and so forth, but the ball came out (of Goff’s hands) quick,” Donatell said. “The ball was out quick all during that game. There were a ton of good pressures. We want to have a little better coverage to make them hold it just a little longer.”
Of Wonnum’s six tackles this season, two are sacks and two are for a loss of yardage. He had a big sack of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on third-and-6 in the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ season-opening, 23-7 victory on Sept. 11. Lining up on the right side, Wonnum moved left against three offensive linemen, then with a burst of speed closed in on Rodgers to end the late drive.
His sack of Jalen Hurts at Philadelphia on Sept. 19 was one of the few highlights for a defense that struggled to contain the Eagles quarterback in a 24-7 loss. If Smith can’t play Sunday, Wonnum and Hunter will be the Vikings’ primary pass rushers against whoever the Saints play.
“I’m going to go out there and do what I’ve been doing,” Wonnum said. “Obviously, this scheme has allowed me to be in better positions and more productive and play a lot better. So, I’m going to go out there and play fast and continue to do what I do.”
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