McKinnon still learning on the run

Jerick McKinnon entered the NFL without a definitive position, but he has quickly developed into a legitimate starting running back out of necessity. He and GM Rick Spielman talked about McKinonn's progress and some of the things that have helped speed that up.

Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon has been one of the big surprises during the first half of the season. He played at Georgia Southern in college, so he was not going against tougher opponents week in and week out like someone from the SEC would be doing. He also was splitting time as a running back and a quarterback while running the triple option.

While going through the draft process, people knew he was a good athlete, but some scouts didn’t think he was polished enough to be a starter. He was thought of being more of a change of pace back, and his draft profile on even said that he was a “practice-squad candidate.”

“There was no question about McKinnon’s athletic ability when he came out,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “The question was how long is it going to take for him to learn how to play running back because he was the option quarterback. And teams looked at him throughout the draft as a possible corner because he’s such a unique athlete. But from where he was from that first rookie minicamp …”

Even the Vikings, who drafted McKinnon in the third round, 96th overall, were originally planning to use him as a change-of-pace back to complement Adrian Peterson, but since Peterson has been away from the team dealing with legal trouble it has been up to McKinnon and Matt Asiata to carry the load.

McKinnon really did not get going until Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons, when he rushed for 135 yards on 18 carries. Prior to that, he had only rushed for 7 yards on five carries.

Even though McKinnon has found success early in his professional career – multiple 100-yard rushing games and being named offensive rookie of the week – he understands that he still has a lot to learn.

“It’s about learning for me right now with it being my first season,” he said. “And you know, Matt, Jerome (Felton), Zach (Line), all those guys are still helping me so I’m just blessed to be in the situation I’m in and have guys around me like that.”

One of the things his teammates have been helping with is advice on how to keep the body healthy. McKinnon is a small player by NFL standards – standing at 5-foot-9 and weighing 209 pounds – but at times he is a very physical runner. The defenders he is playing against now are a lot bigger, faster and stronger than those he faced in college.

That’s why body maintenance through the course of the year, especially if he is going to continue to be a key component to the Vikings offense, is so important.

“This level there are a lot bigger guys than at the college level,” McKinnon said. “So you feel those hits on Mondays and Tuesdays and stuff like that, but the good thing about it is you’ve got resources to take care of your body. So just getting in there and making sure your body is healthy at all times and just preparing week to week (is key).”

One way to make sure that McKinnon stays healthy is to limit his number of carries in the games, which the coaching staff has done. He has never carried the ball more than 19 times in a game, and having another back (Asiata) to take some of the short-yardage carries has helped.

“In general, most teams are going to have two backs because of the pounding the backs take in this league,” Spielman said. “Especially if you’re going to run the ball, you’re going to need two backs who can come in and stay fresher throughout the season. But I think we have a nice combination going with him and Matt – two different styles. Everybody’s seen what Matt can do last year when he got the opportunity and some of the things he’s going this year. But I think that gives us a pretty good combination of backs right now.”

McKinnon has still been able to be productive, though, averaging 5 yards per rush. He has not, however, been able to find the end zone yet this year, although he has been close on a couple occasions. During the Vikings’ last game against the Washington Redskins, McKinnon got stopped short of the end zone. He was stretching out trying to get that first career touchdown, but could not quite get there.

“I had a couple good runs and I was trying to get that first one,” he said. “You know, my touchdown, and my arms weren’t quite long enough, but it’s all good. We still won; that’s the key focus. I’m happy. We got a two-game winning streak, so just trying to find a way to keep that thing going.”

With the start of the season that McKinnon has had, you can be sure that he is going to be a part of the Vikings offense going forward, and if the Vikings are able to keep winning, odds are the young running back will finally get his first touchdown.

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