You didn’t see videos of Vikings running back Matt Asiata flipping tires during the offseason on Twitter. You didn’t see photos of Asiata’s meal plan throughout the winter on Instagram or tagged on another teammate’s photo.
He quietly went back home to Utah to work out with his siblings, improving on his explosiveness on the field and his awareness off the field. The former Utah standout doesn’t gain the attention of a superstar such as Adrian Peterson or an athletic freak like Jerick McKinnon — his fellow Vikings running backs — but Asiata is beloved by the coaching for his ability to serve any role. That means running, blocking, playing special teams … and constantly striving to improve.
“I appreciate him more than most, probably,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “Our players and coaches appreciate him a lot more than people who don’t understand. He does everything you ask him to do.”
Take Saturday’s preseason game against the Raiders when the Vikings were in the two-minute drill in the first half. Quarterback Shaun Hill dumped a pass to Asiata, who sidestepped to his right, avoided cornerback SaQwan Edwards, cut to his left, then juked defensive end Gary Wilkins for a 17-yard gain. It was the longest play on the drive that ended with a touchdown.
Explosive plays were rare last season for Asiata, who was the only consistent face in the backfield for the Vikings. Following an offseason in which backup running back Toby Gerhart signed with the Jaguars, the Vikings had Peterson for only one game and placed McKinnon on injured reserve late in the season because of a back issue. Asiata started nine games, collecting nine touchdowns while averaging 3.5 yards per carry in 164 rushes. It’s not bad for a guy who was working in an industrial supply warehouse four years ago.
But Asiata and running backs coach Kirby Wilson agreed he needed to get better at understanding defensive fronts.
“Just reading the defenses a lot more, using your eyes and not running into your own blockers,” Asiata said. “Just finding the hole and taking it. Defenses are always trying to stuff the run. They have schemes with different fronts, linebackers shifting and all that. Knowing how they’re blitzing, film is a big part of just learning this stuff on the field.”
Wilson said an NFL running back must have vision, instincts and the ability to change direction to succeed. And anticipation.
“Anticipation is different than instincts because you can make up for a lack of instincts if you have anticipation, and you have an awareness and you know where the players are going to fit in a defensive formation off studying, preparation and letting it unfold,” Wilson said.
The Vikings re-signed Asiata during the offseason to a one-year deal worth $800,000. He worked on improving his awareness, while also taking on the difficult challenge of eating smaller portions.
“Us Polynesians, we love to eat,” said Asiata, 6 feet and 220 pounds. “Rice is a big part of our lives, and I had to cut down rice big-time and eat salad. You’ve got to treat your body good to perform well on the field.”
It’s early, but the change has been noticeable. He has 12 carries for 58 yards and six receptions for 54 yards in three preseason games. All of this is on top of his value as the team’s best pass protector in the backfield and his usage on special teams that can’t be measured through statistics.
“He will continue to do [special teams] and he’s going to get some carries,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s proven that he deserves some of those things. Matt is a guy that will do anything we ask him to do, whether it’s on the punt team or the kickoff return team or punt return team; he just goes in there and does. Matt wants to win, he wants to do good for his teammates. I really like him.”