Two months ago, rookie running back Jerick McKinnon was looking up at Adrian Peterson and Matt Asiata on the depth chart. Sure, the team had plans for him as a pass-catcher in certain packages. But mostly the thought was that they would ease the electric third-round runner into the offense.
Things quickly changed when the Vikings lost Peterson, the centerpiece of their offensive plans, when his legal issues came to light after the opener. Asiata became the starter with Peterson out and played most of the snaps. But suddenly, McKinnon had to take on a larger role than expected, too.
A few weeks later, McKinnon rushed for 135 yards, the highest total for a Vikings back this season, in a Week 4 win over the Falcons and Asiata struggled the following week in the loss to the Packers.
So the Vikings gave McKinnon the start against the Lions. And while head coach Mike Zimmer said yesterday that he wants Asiata to remain involved in the running game, it looks as if McKinnon, who has quickly climbed atop the depth chart, will be given an chance to settle in as the starter.
“[It has been] a whirlwind,” McKinnon said after today’s morning walkthrough. “Everything happened so fast. I think I prepare myself to be ready for whatever happens. There has definitely been a lot thrown my way, just from a rookie standpoint, going through a whole bunch of different things. But I think it’s helped me in my progression to become a better NFL running back.”
McKinnon rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries against a formidable Lions defensive front in his first start and caught a team-high six passes for 42 yards. His 5.0 yards-per-carry average is inflated by his performance against the Falcons, but McKinnon has brought the threat of explosive plays back to the backfield, something that has been lacking since Peterson was shut down indefinitely.
Asked to assess his play of late, McKinnon said he feels he is becoming a more consistent player.
“I’ve had some mistakes here and there, some mishaps here and there,” McKinnon said. “But for the most part I think I’ve been consistent. I think I’ve showed them that I come to get better in practice every day in and out, so I’m just trying to build upon those things as I go along and find my way.”
McKinnon must handle the extra responsibilities that come with being the lead back, including being asked to do more pass protecting. He didn’t expect it to happen this fast, but he’s eager to do it all.
“I think I’ve accepted the challenge and stepped up to the plate when my number’s called,” he said.