Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) returned a third quarter kickoff return 108 yards for a touchdown. ] JEFF WHEELER jeff.wheeler@startribune.com
The Minnesota Vikings came from behind to beat the San Francisco 49ers 32-31 in their third game of the NFL preseason Sunday night, August 27, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

When Jerick McKinnon fielded a kickoff just steps from the back line of his own end zone last Thursday night, without any doubt as to his intentions when he caught the ball, he was continuing a kickoff practice that’s been in place since Mike Priefer became the Vikings’ special teams coordinator in 2011.

Priefer has given plenty of leeway to dynamic returners like Percy Harvin and Cordarrelle Patterson, who routinely ranked among the league leaders for the deepest starting point on a kickoff return. The Vikings, though, regularly gave both players to bring the ball out, choosing the possibility of a game-changing play over the certainty of a touchback. Harvin had 104- and 105-yard touchdown returns in his two years playing for Priefer, and Patterson had scores of 105 and a league-record 109 yards as a rookie, before adding a 104-yarder last year.

The Vikings, as evidenced by McKinnon’s 108-yard score in the preseason finale, will continue to be aggressive on kick returns.

“We feel like we do a good job with our schemes, but more importantly, we do a good job with the guys that are out there,” Priefer said. “I think Jerick showed he’s a very explosive returner, so we’re going to continue to be aggressive.”

The Vikings’ venturesome approach comes at a time when the league is looking to de-emphasize kickoffs, moving touchbacks out to the 25-yard line last year to incentivize teams taking a knee rather than initiating what is often perceived to be a dangerous play.

When the league changed the rule in March 2016, Priefer said he was relieved the NFL didn’t eliminate the kickoff, saying the play could be coached more safely now that the NFL had outlawed three-man wedges. Patterson was a first-team All-Pro returner in 2013 and 2016, but even though the Vikings will have to replace him, they’ll carry forward the philosophy they used with him.

“[McKinnon] has got great vision,” Priefer said. “He probably has better vision than most of the other guys I’ve coached there, because he’s got that running back mentality. Those guys have a different type of vision with all the drill work they do, with all the running plays they run between the tackles, outside the tackles, what hole to hit, that sort of thing. I think that’s going to be a huge benefit for him.”

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