Jerick McKinnon got his taste of being a starting running back as a rookie last year. This year, however, McKinnon has been relegated to backup duty with Adrian Peterson returning to the Minnesota Vikings and to the top of the NFL rushing chart for the third time in his career.
McKinnon hasn’t been used often, but that is starting to increase, and with Peterson ailing with ankle and shoulder injuries and now adding a lower back injury to the medical chart, McKinnon’s number could be called more often in the first round of the playoffs.
In Sunday night’s game regular-season finale, McKinnon was a target in the running game and passing game early. Teddy Bridgewater’s first pass of the game was a deep shot to McKinnon that turned into an overthrown target.
“It’s one of those things that you wish you could have, but it didn’t affect us in a bad way. Just find a way to sustain drives and come away with points,” McKinnon said.
“At any given time, no matter where you’re at, you can get a chance to make a play. I wish I could have made that play early and create a spark off the bat.”
The opportunity was there and McKinnon drew a favorable matchup when he motioned out of the backfield and a linebacker followed him. He won his assignment, creating more than enough separation, but a too-cautious throw by Bridgewater turned a possible touchdown into an incompletion.
Through the first 10 games, McKinnon rushed the ball more than six times in a game only once. Two out of the last three games he has carried the ball seven times, including a 68-yard touchdown against the New York Giants.
When Peterson left the Packers game after his back injury, the Vikings relied on McKinnon during the NFL rushing leader’s absence.
“Just keep plugging,” McKinnon said of his mindset at that time. “Step in that spot and just be efficient and don’t think – just play off reaction. Those guys, they’re confident in me. When I get in there I’m confident. I’ve got a year experience under my belt. Whether it’s me, Matt (Asiata) or whoever in there, everybody’s comfortable and that’s the good thing about this team. If something does happen, we just stay on the grind.”
But his role has become more than just a backup running back. The Vikings are starting to look his way in the passing game, too.
In the first 10 games of the season, McKinnon was targeted a combined 11 times, producing eight catches for 42 yards. In the last five, he has 18 targets with 13 catches for 131 yards.
“My main focus is when I do get in the game, whether I do have the ball or don’t have the ball, do my job, find a way to make a play for the team, whether it’s pass pro or whether I get a pass or get a run,” McKinnon said. “I guess you could say it’s all about matchups, but at the end of the day we got a great team win (against the Packers) and we want to enjoy this to the fullest and go back to work this week.”
The long pass attempt to McKinnon on Sunday night fell incomplete, but it could portend to the way the Vikings want to continue to use him, hoping to get him matched up against a linebacker in the passing game.
His versatility in college was a major attraction for the Vikings. At Georgia Southern, McKinnon started games at quarterback, wide receiver, running back and cornerback, producing 17 career games with 100 or more yards rushing. He ran for 3,899 career yards and 42 touchdowns, and threw 12 touchdowns, catching one himself.
“It’s something I’m comfortable with, just moving around and things of that nature,” McKinnon said. “We’re going to keep working. I’m going to keep working, working for the team, working for my teammates. If I ever do get that chance again I have to make that play.”
For the season, he is averaging 5.2 yards on 52 carries with two touchdowns, and has 21 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown. Throughout the season, he has created 22 first downs, and in the first Seattle game he tied Adrian Peterson with 18 yards rushing. He also has a kickoff return and three tackles on special teams.
“He’s a really good athlete - good quickness, acceleration, catches the ball well,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s another matchup situation for us. He can run the ball good, too. He has good vision, acceleration. He’s patient. He does a lot of good things. I really like him and he’s a good kid. The guy is like always smiling and happy. He even makes me smile once in a while.”