BATON ROUGE, La. – When LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter studied video of his play last season, one thing in particular stood out.
"Last year, pretty much 80 percent of the time, I was the last man off the ball," Hunter said, referring to how long it took him to move after the snap of the ball. "I'd always think about what the guy's going to do in front of me, like what's going to happen if he does this? And the guy next to him, what if he does that?"
So the 6-foot-6, 247-pounder with a track-and-field background decided this summer that he would start trusting his instincts more, stop overthinking things and see if he could use his speed and strength to make himself more the aggressor coming off the line of scrimmage.
Now he's making life increasingly difficult in practice for the 13th-ranked Tigers offensive linemen. And those linemen expect their counterparts at No. 14 Wisconsin this Saturday, and across the Southeastern Conference this season, to have similar trouble.
"Everybody has their growing pains, but I think he's matured a lot," senior offensive tackle Evan Washington said of Hunter. "He's taking coaching, trying new things and we've seen a whole new Danielle this fall camp.
"He's pretty hard to block," Washington added, nodding toward Hunter as he stood 10 yards away on LSU's indoor practice field. "Look at him. I mean, he's a Superman, freak of nature. He's big. He's long. He's fast. He's agile. He's a really good player. A lot of tackles have trouble with him."
Senior guard Hoko Fanaika said LSU offensive linemen are taught to set their feet differently when they line up against Hunter to compensate for his quickness.
"For a big guy that's pretty muscular, he's fast — really fast," Fanaika said.
Hunter, a native of Katy, Texas, is entering his junior year. He got on the field for 12 games as true freshman, but played only a few snaps a game in a reserve role. He began last season as one of the primary reserves at his position before taking over as starter in the fourth week of the season against Auburn, when he had eight tackles.
Sheer athleticism allowed him to shed blockers and make 57 tackles. But his pass rush wasn't where he wanted it to be. He had three sacks, but expects to be better this season after a fall camp that indicated he's successfully addressed his weaknesses.
"I realized if I just go out there and just play, everything falls into place. Last year, you could tell I was hesitating a lot," Hunter said. "This year, I'm understanding the game more and know what to do against more formations."
Even in a sport loaded with muscle-bound players who spend hours in the weight room, Hunter's physique stands out for the way it is as imposing as it is lean and chiseled. Even at his weight, he's done as many as 35 pull-ups.
Football, however, wasn't part of his early upbringing. He was born in Jamaica, where he lived until he was 7. He then moved to New York and later to Texas, where football found him.
As Hunter recalls, he was playing tag in his neighborhood. His friend was on roller skates. Hunter wasn't, but kept catching him. The friend's father was a youth football coach, and when he saw Hunter run, he said: "Son, you're fast. Come play football."
Because Hunter was big for a fifth-grader — exceeding weight limits allowed for ball carries in his youth league — coaches made him an offensive tackle. As weight limits allowed, he moved to running back and receiver. In high school, his build lent itself more to defensive end and tight end. He also ran track, including the 200 and 400 meters and 4X100 relay.
"Jamaicans, they just love to run — or something like that, because I love to run," Hunter said, adding that he's an admirer of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, a multiple Olympic gold medal winner.
Off the field, Hunter carries himself in a way that belies what a menace he can be on the field. He talks in soft, raspy tones. When in his car, he said, he sinks into the driver's seat, relaxed, while reggae echoes from the stereo, just as one might expect from a stereotypical Jamaican.
Washington grins as he considers the juxtaposition of that image to what he sees when he tries to block Hunter.
"Don't let him fool you. It's the quiet guys you should worry about," Washington said. "On the field he's a different person. He's not laid back."