Mike Boone is adept at finding daylight, so it should be no surprise the second-year pro appears to have carved out room in the Vikings’ crowded backfield.
Should Boone — this month’s preseason star with 181 yards on 26 touches in two games — end up being running back insurance for the regular season, the Vikings appear lucky to have him. The Vikings’ deep stable of running backs, from budding star Dalvin Cook to rookie Alexander Mattison and veteran Ameer Abdullah, has multiplied with Boone’s emergence.
General Manager Rick Spielman might be forced to keep five running backs, including fullback C.J. Ham, in nine days when the roster is trimmed to 53 players. That’s what 111 yards on 22 touches against the Seahawks on Sunday night could do for a once undrafted running back from the University of Cincinnati.
“I’m trying to do the same thing [Saturday vs. the Cardinals],” Boone said.
Backfield depth is a welcome sight for a Vikings offense desperately trying to re-establish its rushing attack, with a ranking oscillating from 30th to seventh to 32nd in yards per game the past three seasons. In 2017, the Vikings’ second and third options in Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combined for more than 1,400 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns after Cook tore his ACL in October that season.
The Vikings coaching staff envisions similarly reliable depth in 2019. Cook is expected to seize a heavy workload in the regular season, but he has appeared in only 15 NFL games, making his durability an ongoing concern.
Multiple players could still contribute behind Cook, according to assistant head coach Gary Kubiak.
“We have a pretty good idea of what we want that to look like once the season starts,” Kubiak said. “The key with [Mattison] and Abdullah and those guys, they’ve got to have a role on the football team. When Dalvin steps out of the game or takes his break, we have to continue to go. We can’t be, ‘OK, let’s survive until Dalvin gets back.’ We keep going forward.”
Could Boone be in the mix?
He didn’t have much of a role in his first NFL season. Even when the impressive vision and speed of the former high school receiver from Glen St. Mary, Fla., earned Boone a roster spot last season, he was active for only eight games and barely played — even on special teams.
Why that could change was evident during Sunday night’s exhibition against the Seahawks.
On one second-half punt return by receiver Olabisi Johnson, Johnson was protected so poorly that he saw five white Seahawks jerseys in front of him almost immediately. Only Boone found and blocked his man near the returner, which impressed coach Mike Zimmer.
“For guys like [Boone], these backup tight ends, the backup wide receivers, backup running backs, backup DBs, backup linebackers, they need to play special teams if they want to make the team,” Zimmer said. “So I was impressed with what he did on special teams probably more so than running back.”
Boone said a better appreciation of special teams has led to his roles as a blocker on the Vikings’ kick return and punt return teams, which could stick into the regular season.
“A lot of people don’t know, but that’s really how you make the team,” Boone said. “So I try to put a lot toward that.”
Boone, 24, said he wants to become the latest success story in the Vikings’ free-agent ladder, which has seen undrafted players from receiver Adam Thielen to safety Anthony Harris work their way up from special teams contributors to offensive or defensive contributors.
The next step for Boone is on special teams. From there, he might be only an injury or two away from additional playing time during the regular season.
“He’s really worked hard out here,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “I appreciate that from that kid. From where he is this moment from back in the spring, the switch didn’t just turn. He’s worked at it.”