McKinnon catching on quickly

Jerick McKinnon’s transition to the NFL and full-time running back is a pleasant surprise for the Vikings.

When the Vikings drafted Jerick McKinnon, the plan wasn’t for him to be the featured back. Even after Adrian Peterson was taken away from the team, McKinnon being the primary ball carrier wasn’t in the initial plans. The original intention was for Matt Asiata to take over that role.

Instead, it has been McKinnon who has provided the Vikings with an offensive spark out of the backfield. He’s averaging 5.2 yards a carry – almost two yards better than Asiata’s average – and has posted a pair of 100-yard rushing games along the way.

Not too shabby for a guy who played quarterback in a gimmick offense at Georgia Southern. His ascent up the depth chart was never handed to him. He had to earn it and his role has expanded due in large part to countless hours of film study and preparation to learn what was technically a new position. He has reached the point now that everything seems to be slowing down a little bit for him and plays are coming more naturally.

“I’m a lot more comfortable now than I was three or four months ago,” McKinnon said. “I think that comes with getting more reps. I’m feeling a pretty high sense of comfort now in that I feel I knowing my assignments and what I can do. It makes it a lot easier when you’re not spending so much time running things through your mind and you’re just able to play and do what comes naturally.”

Many thought the learning curve for McKinnon would be much longer than it has been. By his own admission, McKinnon didn’t envision himself being the leading rusher for the Vikings at the midway point of his rookie season. Coming from an offense that didn’t translate to the NFL game and playing a different position, he has had to do a lot more film study and practicing to get himself to a place where he feels he is reaching his potential.

“I never really was a true running back, so I had a lot to learn,” McKinnon said. “There was a lot on my plate when I first came here. It’s taken a little time and there’s still a lot of work to go, but at least I feel I have a good hold of the offense and know what I’m doing more than I did, say, in training camp or in the preseason.”

For running backs that have played the position for most or all of their football careers, it can be argued there is no more instinctual position on the football field. Asked if instinct takes over or if he has been taught to be a running back, McKinnon admitted it’s been a combination of the two.

“I’d say it’s a little bit of both,” McKinnon said. “Any time you’ve got the ball as a runner, your instincts are naturally going to kick in. But it’s something you have to learn and be disciplined with. Some running backs want to stay inside and, for some reason, they bounce it outside when they shouldn’t. The biggest thing I’ve learned is to stay true to your read keys and try to get the most out of every run – even if it’s just for a couple of yards.”

One of the post-draft knocks on McKinnon was that he was drafted more as an athlete than as a position player. Vikings general manager even raved about the versatility McKinnon showed at his pre-draft workouts. McKinnon feels he has had to prove himself almost every week because there are no guarantees in the NFL and, if he struggles, he could be replaced in the starting lineup just as quickly as he found his way into it.

One of the elements of his game that he has been surprisingly good at is making yards after contact. Some skeptics felt he could only be an effective edge rusher, but McKinnon has proved to be a very good between-the-tackles runner who pushes forward on almost every carry to gain an extra yard or two as often as possible.

“I do take a little bit of pride in that,” McKinnon said. “I’m not the biggest guy, so I try to display myself as a giant in the way I play. I take pride in what I do and I work hard at what I do. I feel I still have some improvement to make, but I think it’s coming along and I feel like I’m getting better as the season goes along.”

Head coach Mike Zimmer said McKinnon’s power comes from his lower body.

When the Vikings conducted their 2014 draft, McKinnon was something of a wild card. The organization knew they had potential stars in Teddy Bridgewater and Anthony Barr, but McKinnon was a player drafted on potential. With that potential now being realized, he’s moving forward with the motto that it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight that matters, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

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