MANKATO — Rodney Adams sat down inside a Winter Park team meeting room and looked up at himself.
Mike Priefer, the Vikings special teams coordinator, queued up video of a 97-yard kickoff return Adams scored against Navy. Adams was at Vikings headquarters for an April job interview — a pre-draft top 30 visit — when the mood tightened for a brief second.
“I said, ‘You know I’m a Naval Academy graduate, right?’ And I’m dead serious,” Priefer recalled. “We don’t know each other yet. He looked at me like, is this guy serious? Deadpanned, it was beautiful. I started laughing and, of course, he started laughing.”
Would this mark the beginning of a career for another Pro Bowl kick returner for the Vikings?
A month later, the Vikings made Adams a fifth-round pick. Yet the shoes he has to fill are much larger than your typical mid-round pick. The 22-year-old receiver from South Florida is first in line to pick up where Percy Harvin and Cordarrelle Patterson left off with eight years of big kickoff returns and touchdowns.
If Adams’ untouched sprint against Navy in 2015 is any indication, they may have found a gem.
“He always gets on me about it,” Adams said of Priefer. “That’s probably my most memorable return there. I bring it up to him all the time.”
The Vikings didn’t push this offseason to keep Patterson, the dynamic 2013 first-round pick who didn’t quite develop as a receiver in four years and left for Oakland. The team instead turned its attention to the draft, where Adams’ 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash caught many eyes.
“We had him ranked very highly coming out of college at South Florida,” Priefer said. “A lot of production, did some very good things. He’s very raw. Like a lot of college kids, they’ve got the talent, but haven’t worked on the specifics of returning. That’s my job to teach him that, in terms of setting up his returns, what seams to hit.”
Adams’ athletic talent made him an all-around threat at South Florida, where he combined for 23 touchdowns (16 receiving, seven rushing) and the lone return score vs. Priefer’s Midshipmen. He averaged 25 yards per kickoff return in his college career, peaking as a junior with a 29-yard average that ranked sixth in the nation.
Vikings cornerback Horace Richardson is familiar. The former Southern Methodist defensive back faced Adams every year in the American Athletic Conference, where SMU coaches would try to kick away from Adams every time the Bulls came up on the schedule.
“He got like the wiggle, he just wiggles out of everything,” Richardson said. “You try to funnel him in, he can shake you out of anything.”
Richardson recalled Adams’ lateral movement, including a wicked spin move in his thin 6-foot-1, 189-pound frame, as “ridiculous.”
His speed even berthed a two-word nickname from his Lakewood High School football coach in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“ ‘Hello, goodbye,’ ” said Lakewood coach Cory Moore. “I told him I named him that because it’s so crazy, he’ll catch a pass and he’s there one second — the next he’s gone. So we just called him ‘Hello, goodbye.’ ”
Moore also called Adams his “insurance policy.” If Lakewood needed one play, Moore turned to Adams, who even played some quarterback in high school, to break one. The Vikings need to replace that kind of return talent lost in Patterson, and before him Harvin.
Adams will compete this preseason with running back Jerick McKinnon and, if necessary, punt returner Marcus Sherels for the kick return job. Second-round pick Dalvin Cook fielded some kicks in the spring, but the expectation is he’ll be needed too much on offense to contribute as a returner.
Leading the pack is Adams, the lanky receiver whose fumbling problem in college (five in 2016) contrasted with explosive plays that changed games.
“Them trusting me as the kick returner is a big deal,” Adams said.
Especially in purple and gold, which have recently been the colors of NFL kick return royalty.