During October and November, for a brief period of time, Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon was able to – at least in a small way – help make Minnesota Vikings fans forget what they were missing in Adrian Peterson.
McKinnon was ironically drafted in the third round with a pick the Vikings acquired from Seattle in the Percy Harvin trade. In McKinnon, the Vikings draft war room envisioned a player who could be the Swiss Army knife player that Harvin was. At Georgia Southern University, McKinnon was technically an option quarterback, but played QB, running back, wide receiver and even cornerback.
The intention was never that McKinnon would be thrown in as the featured back. But when Peterson was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, all bets were off. He went from being a tantalizing project to a starter and, in the two games he had 18 or more carries, he topped 100 yards in both.
As he enters his second season, his role has been pushed back to being the secondary option to Peterson, which was the plan all along. Yet McKinnon is available to do much more than he was a year ago because his apprenticeship by fire has forged a much more advanced NFL player than the Vikings thought they would have at this point of his career.
“I’m a lot more comfortable this year,” McKinnon said. “It’s not about me trying to figure out what’s going on anymore. It’s about knowing my assignments and making it happen. A year of experience has allowed me to play a lot faster with less thinking through training camp and the preseason.”
McKinnon’s reliability to the Vikings offense ramped up when he was pushed into the spotlight and he learned a valuable life lesson from the experience. It’s one thing to run plays in practice and in the preseason. It’s another to be counted on when wins and losses count.
While his role in the offense will diminish by design, the résumé building he was able to accomplish last year was invaluable to his game. He has become a player that can be counted on, even if he is currently serving in an understudy role.
“When it comes to this game, you can learn a lot in practice, but when you get in a game situation there’s nothing that can change that experience,” McKinnon said. “I thought I was doing good last year, but when I got in game situations, I learned so much more because you can’t create that speed and that instinct in practice. That collective experience has given me confidence that I can handle whatever is asked of me.”
With the explosiveness the Vikings potentially have on the offensive side of the ball, McKinnon is excited about the prospect of a wide-open offense that the Vikings have with the backs, tight ends and receivers.
His portion of the bigger picture of the offense has yet to be defined with the return of Peterson. But his cog in the machine is something McKinnon sees as being his chance to be part of something special.
“I think we have a lot of players who bring a lot to the table,” McKinnon said. “We have good core receivers who all do something very well. Teddy’s development has come along really quickly. He has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He brings that work ethic, that drive, that leadership to the table. When you all have those pieces with our running backs – we all bring something different to the table – we have a lot of pieces to the puzzle that fit, but we have to go out and produce.”
What happens from here is speculation, but McKinnon has earned his place in the rotation and, however it plays out, he sees his place within it.
“I think there is going to be a place for me in this offense,” McKinnon said. “I’ve been preparing as hard as I can and I’m ready to take on whatever role the coaches ask me to.”