McKinnon has seen, learned a lot

Jerick McKinnon has had a sharp learning curve going from college QB to starting NFL running back in less than a year. But he’s still the starter … for now.

The post-Adrian Peterson era is underway for a more long-term basis – perhaps permanently given his season-ending suspension that has many speculating where the Minnesota Vikings will go from here.

They made a move Wednesday, claiming Cleveland running back Ben Tate off waivers, but for the time being the starter is going to be Jerick McKinnon if his low back injury doesn’t prevent that.

McKinnon leads the Vikings with 98 carries for 484 yards (a 4.9-yard average) and for the last five games has been the starting running back for the Vikings. A converted college quarterback, McKinnon has had a long learning curve but is feeling more comfortable in his role as a starter as each week has passed.

“I definitely have learned a lot,” McKinnon said. “My first year, my rookie season, it’s been a learning experience. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been able to pick up different things and better myself as a player.”

Although he hasn’t scored any touchdowns yet, McKinnon is the Vikings’ most dangerous big-play threat out of the backfield (when Cordarrelle Patterson doesn’t line up there) and believes that the best is yet to come for him.

“You always want to make those big plays and score long touchdowns, but it doesn’t always work that way,” McKinnon said. “All I can do is run hard and fast every time I get the ball and eventually it will come around.”

What didn’t come around last week were chances for McKinnon. He had just eight carries, his lowest total since become the starter, and had just one rush in the second half of a game that was a one-score game until a long drive culminated in a fourth quarter touchdown for Chicago that opened up the score.

McKinnon broke off one run for 23 yards, but for the most part he was bottled up by the Bears defense, gaining just 15 yards on his other seven carries. He is a strong proponent of the Norv Turner offense, but had some frustration for his lack of use, especially in the second half, and understands that the running game needs to work at a high level every week to take the pressure off rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater.

“I feel we definitely could have done a lot better,” McKinnon said. “I’m not calling the plays or anything like that. I’m just running the ball and I’m giving it all I’ve got for the team and just trying to find a way to win to the ballgame. I feel like there are things we can do to get better in the running game, not just last week but every week. It’s a process, so we’ll see how it goes.”

This week, McKinnon gets his second shot at a team for the first time in his career when he faces the Green Bay Packers. In their first meeting, McKinnon was still a change-of-pace back who had just seven carries for 24 yards, but he learned a lot from that game and the experience will be valuable because the Packers have an intimidating defense that gets stronger when they have a lead to work with.

“They have a physical defense,” McKinnon said. “(They’re) fast and have a fast flow, too. I already played them once and have a heads-up on what they do. That will definitely help us out. I’m definitely looking for a different outcome this time.”

What the future holds for McKinnon is still a big question. He became the starter after just five games and has held up for himself pretty well, limiting deposed starter Matt Asiata to just 23 carries over the last five games after running the ball 62 times in the first five contests.

The only certainty right now with the Vikings running game is that Peterson is gone for the season and Tate has been added into the mix. But, from McKinnon’s perspective, he’s not looking over his shoulder at the competition. For now, it’s his job to keep as the starting running back and that’s all he can do.

“I’ve felt a lot more confident and comfortable in what I’ve been doing since I became the starter,” McKinnon said. “My goal is just to help the team win. That’s it. If that means I run 25 times a game and we win, that’s the goal. If I run 10 times and we win, that’s fine. We’re just looking to win some ballgames.”

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