Matt Asiata’s path to the NFL has never been an easy one, but the challenges have made him more appreciative of the opportunity.
Asiata, the Minnesota Vikings’ third-year running back, knows his role. He is here to complement Adrian Peterson when the workhorse running back needs a break, or at least is given a rest by the coaches.
But as mandatory roster trimming approaches, Asiata only has to remember three years ago for motivation to keep improving. The big back from Utah joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and spent only three days on their practice squad. He made the original practice squad in early September before he was released and out of football for three months.
“It’s just so precious to be out here and have the opportunity to play football and do things I love and providing for my family,” Asiata said last week. “I can’t take that away. If I do get released, I’m just going to go work hard and try to get back.”
That isn’t as likely this year as it was three years ago. He has gained experience and equity, moving up from a short-lived practice squad player to at least a regular contributor on special teams. Last year, he got the start in one game and the majority of the work in another as Peterson and Toby Gerhart both spent time sidelined with injuries.
Asiata took full advantage. Against Philadelphia on Dec. 15, he rushed 30 times for only 51 yards but had three rushing touchdowns. Two weeks later, he rushed 14 times for 115 yards against the Detroit Lions.
Those experiences have helped him improve in several areas.
“Reading my blocks as a runner, being an NFL runner, just being patient and hitting the holes real quick,” he said. “You can’t really do what Adrian does, but looking at him you see what he does and just try to do it.”
But his release three years ago serves as motivation to never believe his roster spot is completely secure, even if he has been elevated to No. 2 on the depth chart with the exit of Gerhart in free agency.
“After seeing Toby getting released, I’ve got to push myself that much harder to just be there for Adrian and the rest of the team. I’m trying to be the guy for the offense and trying to show the new coaches what I can do out of the backfield and catching the ball and all of that,” he said.
During most of the 2011 season, Asiata had to accept the reality that his three days on the practice squad might be the only NFL opportunity he would get. He took a job at an industrial supplies warehouse stocking and delivering, but he never stopped training for the NFL, even if he figured his chances of getting back into the NFL were only “50-50.”
“You never know if they’re going to use your number again,” he said. “I’m blessed they did.”
Even with a new coaching staff, they are calling his jersey number more this preseason. He leads the team with 24 carries and has 80 yards and a touchdown to show for it, but he continues to focus on improving his techniques and recognizing blocking assignments quicker.
He has also lost weight in an effort to increase his quickness. Once more of a “tweener” running back and fullback, Asiata was determined to lose weight in order to gain agility.
He has even been described as elusive, a description that brought a smile to Asiata’s face.
“They coached a lot of good players, great players. For them to say that, it’s just such a blessing they can see what I can do,” Asiata said. “I’m just going to go out there and whatever they want me to do, just go out there and play and just have fun.”
He’s likely to make the 53-man roster, as head coach Mike Zimmer described him as “dependable” and “valuable,” but if not, he has a fall-back plan. He will either use his degree in law enforcement or use his connections at Utah and hope to join the coaching staff there.
Neither of those plans is likely to be executed anytime soon, but the warehouse job served as motivation to keep working hard on his NFL dream.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Warehouse working served as motivation
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