Don’t sell Jerick McKinnon short.
McKinnon, the former do-it-all option quarterback at Georgia Southern, put himself on the NFL’s radar by speeding around defenders in a sideline-to-sideline college offense. Three years later, the Vikings, once again without Adrian Peterson, have turned to McKinnon, who will be featured Monday night against the New York Giants in a predominantly downhill, between-the-tackles running game that has so far failed to produce.
But the Vikings don’t see McKinnon’s fit as the issue. He’s viewed as a “complete” replacement for Peterson, the future Hall of Famer who averaged just 1.6 yards on 31 carries before suffering a potentially season-ending knee injury in Week 2.
After Peterson’s exit, the Vikings added a couple of outside runs but kept the running game primarily inside last Sunday in Carolina. McKinnon found a slight crease to the right of center Joe Berger for 14 yards, the offense’s longest run of the season.
“I like the inside stuff,” McKinnon said. “I guess a lot of people see me — speed, size and stature — and think I want to just get the edge, but over three years I’ve worked really hard to hit every area of being a complete back.”
Where questions revolved around Peterson’s ability to do more in the passing game, McKinnon is often asked if he can be more than the “change-of-pace” back. His 5-9, 209-pound size doesn’t give people the proper first impression.
“Me, as a little guy, I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder,” McKinnon said. “I know some people put me in that category, but I’m more than just a scatback.”
McKinnon is the first to admit that running from the “dot” position, the NFL’s traditional running back spot where Peterson often starts 7 yards behind the quarterback, has been his main trial in the pros. “Along with pass pro[tection],” he added. Deep in the backfield, he’s learned to be a more patient runner, which gives the Vikings confidence to deploy him in all situations regardless of his size.
“He’s a pretty thick guy for being a short guy, I guess,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Unquestioned is McKinnon’s unique range of abilities, which made him a 2014 third-round pick despite little experience in a pro-style offense. His athleticism was too much for the Vikings’ size-discriminatory personnel department to overlook. McKinnon used his compact frame to put up stellar performances at his NFL scouting combine, including a position-leading 32 bench reps and a 40.5-inch vertical jump. He became an instant favorite of the Vikings’ advanced analytics projects.
McKinnon has since proven them right by producing when the offense needs him.
In his third NFL season, he’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry in a career that has so far been at the whim of Peterson’s availability. McKinnon went 19 games between 10-carry outings before last week, when he started the second extended stint as the main ball carrier. He’s once again taken the lead in a partial split with Matt Asiata, a more thumping, downhill runner.
“We can mix them however we want,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “Jerick, with his explosiveness and his ability to come out of the backfield when appropriate, we will try to take advantage of that.
“But he’s a complete runner.”
Turner’s thought process was evident in Carolina, where McKinnon led the Vikings with 45 rushing yards on 16 carries in a variety of downs and distances. They leaned on McKinnon when convention called for the “hammer” Asiata, as guard Jeremiah Sirles said.
On one of the only goal-line carries, McKinnon lined up alongside Sam Bradford and took the shotgun handoff 2 yards for the two-point conversion. His speed and a proper dose of patience served McKinnon well on the inside zone run.
When the right side collapsed under a wall of Panthers defenders, McKinnon paused briefly to allow the flow of bodies to open a small cutback window on the left side of the play.
“He’s lightning quick,” said Sirles, who played 35 snaps last Sunday. “He can take one of those guys and make them miss in the hole by making them just look silly.”