Few athletes looked better sprinting around in spandex than Jerick McKinnon.
The little-known runner out of Georgia Southern literally turned heads during the NFL combine in February, giving scouts whiplash with top performances for his position in pretty much every event.
He finished third in the three-cone drill, blazed to a second-best 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash and pumped out 32 reps on the bench press, six more than the next-strongest running back.
“He was just, from an athletic standpoint, too good of an athlete to pass up,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said after selecting McKinnon in the third round earlier this month.
Now that McKinnon is all theirs, the challenge for the Vikings will be finding how to best put this explosive but inexperienced running back to use.
The plan for now is for Mc- Kinnon to be a pass-catching complement to starter Adrian Peterson — a role that can be a productive one in Norv Turner’s offense — but McKinnon has a lot to learn first for that plan to play out as hoped.
McKinnon played all over the field in college. Before his senior year, Georgia Southern converted the triple-option quarterback and part-time defensive back into a tailback. He finished his college career with 3,899 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns scored, 12 TD passes and limited understanding of some of the nuances needed to play that position in the pros.
“I got a chance to practice it at the Senior Bowl, so I’m kind of a little bit comfortable with it,” McKinnon said.
“The only thing that’s a little bit different is the pass protection. I really hadn’t had any technique on it or been coached on it. So I’m really just looking to get with [running backs coach Kirby] Wilson and learn from the older guys the techniques and practicing on it.”
But the Vikings saw enough during the Senior Bowl, the combine and a pro day that Spielman described as “the most interesting workout I’ve seen ever in the spring” because Mc- Kinnon also lined up at cornerback and returned punts to convince onlookers that he is project that will pay off.
“We were very impressed with what he did in the workouts catching the ball with his hands. His running style, that speaks for itself when you watch the tape,” Spielman said. “He’s elusive, he has great speed in the open field and he kind of gives us that dynamic third-down type back that will give us a little spark when he comes in.”
That little spark has been a big part of Turner’s offenses throughout his coaching career. Not only did every-down standouts such as Frank Gore and Emmitt Smith see an uptick in targets with Turner calling the plays — nearly a third of Smith’s career receptions came in the three seasons when Turner was the Cowboys offensive coordinator — but he also had success with situational pass-catching backs such as Brian Mitchell and Darren Sproles.
Despite the presence of All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who caught 132 passes in three seasons working with Turner, Sproles was an important player for the Chargers, catching 143 passes in four seasons before signing with the Saints. The Vikings already have shown McKinnon tape of Tomlinson, Sproles and Ryan Mathews running routes and snatching passes out of the backfield and as receivers on the line of scrimmage.
McKinnon, who caught only three passes in Georgia Southern’s run-heavy offense in 2013, is hopeful that he can have a similar impact in the passing game, though he will have to convince the coaching staff that he can be trusted in pass protection to get the opportunity.
“All I can really do is come out every day, give it all I’ve got and just leave the rest in their hands,” said McKinnon, who idolizes Peterson but patterns his game after Eagles dual-threat running back LeSean McCoy.
McKinnon has thousands of yards to cover to be considered to be on their level, but he has made positive impressions during the recent rookie minicamp and the voluntary offseason workouts. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater praised him for his “soft hands” and “great cuts” when he had the ball, and coach Mike Zimmer sounded eager to carve out a meaningful role for this impressive athlete.
“Yeah, I like him,” Zimmer said. “He’s short in stature, but he’s got big legs and a big rear end. He’s got explosiveness, so I think we’ll find some things for him to do.”