EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Jerick McKinnon took the handoff left and hit heavy traffic in his own end zone, bouncing off a Minnesota blocker to find a different route out of the end zone.
Somehow, he avoided the safety.
Racing right, the young running back scampered through a crease in the middle of the field to carve out a 10-yard gain for the Vikings in the second quarter of the exhibition opener at Cincinnati last week. McKinnon caught a short pass to convert a third-and-2 on the next play, too, extending a drive that ended with a long touchdown throw by Teddy Bridgewater.
McKinnon’s diverse set of skills and the nature of successful offenses in the NFL have made one of the smallest players on Minnesota’s roster one of the most important. Meaningless preseason games or not, McKinnon’s value is set up for another increase this season.
“It’s a good situation for me, I feel,” he said, alluding to the presence of Adrian Peterson in front of him.
For the Vikings, too.
“We want to be able to use Jerick a lot. I’m hopeful that he has a very good year,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s a great kid. He works real hard. Doesn’t hardly ever make mistakes.”
The fact that Peterson has turned 31 is only part of this equation. If any player in the league can defy the limits of at-his-age production, Peterson is probably him. He led the NFL last season with 1,485 yards rushing with only six carries that netted more than 25 yards, all behind an offensive line that never found its footing.
Peterson simply isn’t the same threat when down and distance dictates a pass, in terms of both catching ability and blitz pickup. McKinnon can handle those tasks more to the coaching staff’s liking, and he brings the shift in style and stature that can be an effective change to throw at a team geared up for Peterson.
“There are certain games where they’re really going to struggle with a guy like him, and there are certain games that it may not be the best fit,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “So those are the decisions we make on a week-to-week basis, but it’s nice having him because we know he’s an explosive player.”
McKinnon’s versatility as a running back, wide receiver, cornerback and option quarterback at Georgia Southern in college earned him the nickname “Jet” and a selection by the Vikings in the third round of the 2014 draft. He averaged 6.1 yards per touch in his second year in the league on 52 carries and 21 catches. Turner acknowledged the possibility of putting both McKinnon and Peterson in the backfield for certain plays.
“It’s only smart to use that guy and put him in there against different defenses, so we can take advantage of him,” said Peterson, who often has a hard time conceding the benefit of fewer snaps for him.
To stay on the field more, the 5-foot-9 McKinnon must be able to withstand the jarring contact that comes with carrying the ball in the NFL. Peterson said he’s noticed his position mate become more of a physical runner through the middle. McKinnon said he gained 11 pounds during the offseason to get to 206 pounds.
“That was something last year I kind of had trouble with, keeping my weight,” McKinnon said. “It’s hard, coming out here. You’ve just got to stay dedicated to eating. It’s hard, being out here for so long, you’re not really hungry going in, but you’ve got to push yourself to eat.”
Even with the extra pounds, McKinnon joked recently that his fellow running backs, even the rookies, still treat him “like the little brother” in the room.
His impact on the Vikings this season ought to his outreach his size, though.
“I just feel it’s all coming together,” McKinnon said. “I just think if I get the opportunity to be able to contribute more, I feel like I’ll have a lot to showcase.”
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