Vikings tight end Tyler Conklin is one of the biggest rookie surprises in the NFL. Coming out of high school, he wasn’t even recruited as a football player.
In the Vikings’ 41-17 victory over Miami on Sunday, Conklin was the leading receiver in yardage for quarterback Kirk Cousins with two catches for 53 yards.
Conklin’s first reception went for 20 yards in the first quarter. On the next play, Dalvin Cook ran for a 13-yard touchdown to give the Vikings a 14-0 lead.
Conklin’s second reception, a 33-yarder in the third quarter, was even more important after the Dolphins cut the margin to 24-17. His catch set up Dan Bailey’s 34-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
“It was really nice to get some opportunities,” Conklin said. “I have been saying since the beginning of the year that I’m willing to do anything I’m needed to do — whether it’s special teams, blocking. Just to have the opportunity for Kirk and the offense to show confidence in me was great.”
Conklin was a fifth-round draft pick out of Central Michigan, where he was a walk-on after starting his college career playing Division II basketball.
Conklin was the 2013 Macomb County player of the year in Michigan after his senior high school season.
“I went to Northwood University [in Midland, Michigan] and played basketball,” Conklin said. “… Then I ended up walking on [in football] at Central Michigan. I played wide receiver at first and ended up playing tight end.”
Conklin played in 34 games for the Chippewas, catching 83 passes for 1,159 yards and 11 touchdowns over three seasons. He broke a bone in his left foot his senior year and appeared in only eight games, but Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and his staff saw enough potential to select him.
The 6-3, 254-pounder ran a 4.8 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and his 38-inch vertical ranked second among tight ends there.
Coach, parents helped
Conklin was asked if he was highly recruited coming out of high school.
“Not really, I mainly played basketball,” he said. “We weren’t very good at football in high school, so I ended up walking on and earning a scholarship after two years.”
Conklin gave a lot of credit for his pass-catching ability to Sherrone Moore, who was tight ends coach at Central Michigan and now holds the same position under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. He also cited his athletic parents.
“My mom and dad both played college sports,” he said. “My mom [Diana] played volleyball and my dad [Terry] played football. They both have been tremendous throughout my whole career.”
Now Conklin gets a chance to play in his home state Sunday in Detroit, in a game with big playoff implications for the Vikings.
“I am really excited about it,” he said. “My mom is super-excited. She tries to come to almost every game, but for this game she has about 200 people coming. It will be a lot of fun.”
Ready to help offense
Conklin said working with Cousins during his rookie season has been a big help to his career.
“I love it,” he said. “He is a great dude, extremely smart. We’re both from Michigan, and my rookie year has been great so far.”
Conklin was asked about the Vikings scoring 21 unanswered points in the first quarter against the Dolphins.
“I mean, I feel like that was the best we have played collectively as an offense to start a game yet,” he said. “I think we got the ball rolling this week.”
He said new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski ran a lot of the same plays as former coordinator John DeFilippo, but also put his own stamp on the calls.
“It was a lot of the stuff we have been doing all year, I mean, stuff we have been running through camp,” Conklin said. “We just executed extremely well, we ran the ball well which made play-action and throwing the ball a lot easier. Dalvin had a hell of a game [19 carries for 136 yards and two touchdowns], and the offensive line blocked extremely well. I think we just put together a very complete game as an offense.”
Ibrahim steps up
The Gophers football coaching staff didn’t expect to need redshirt freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim to play much this season.
But after injuries to Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, Ibrahim stepped in and finished the year as the second-leading freshman in the country in rushing yards per game, averaging 104 yards over nine contests. That mark was 19th-best among all running backs.
Coming out of Olney, Md., Ibrahim was one of coach P.J. Fleck’s big recruits in the Class of 2017 and he showed why.
“I was recruited by Kentucky, West Virginia, here and Iowa,” Ibrahim recalled. “I was in contact with Coach Fleck when he was at Western Michigan and when he got the job here, he started picking it back up. I got on a visit and I loved it up here and I committed.”
Ibrahim said Brooks and Smith played a big role in his success, even though they were injured.
“They were hurt physically, but mentally they were always there with me,” he said. “Rodney used to always watch film with me. Shannon used to always keep my energy up. We lost them on the field, but we always had them off the field. They’re both my big brothers.”
The biggest game for the Gophers and Ibrahim had to be their 37-15 victory at Wisconsin, where he finished with 121 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries in the regular-season finale to help the Gophers clinch a bowl bid.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Ibrahim said. “We worked for it. We knew what we wanted to do coming into that game. Everything worked out how we wanted it to.”
Ibrahim said beating the Badgers put the Gophers in a great position not only for the Quick Lane Bowl against Georgia Tech on Wednesday but also for next season.
“These extra 15 practices are probably some of the best practices I had this year, critiquing myself and small, little things I missed during the season,” he said. “I have it now.”
Ibrahim said Smith and Brooks will challenge him for carries next season — both seniors are expected to receive a medical hardship waiver — but he is ready to keep improving.
“Just building off what I did this season and riding that when Rodney and Shannon come back,” he said. “Three of us, we bring the best out of each other. If one is doing something good, then we’re all trying to work up to it.”