McKinnon getting education on how to be NFL running back

In his first season as a full-time running back, Jerick McKinnon ran for 1,050 yards last year.

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The education of Jerick McKinnon started immediately.

McKinnon, drafted in the third round last week by the Minnesota Vikings, didn’t play in a pro-style offense at Georgia Southern. The 5-foot-9 McKinnon played three years as a quarterback in Georgia Southern’s triple-option offense, basically as a running back with the option to throw.

He didn’t pass block. He rarely caught passes. His role in the NFL was almost all projection. So, Minnesota sat down with their draft pick this week and started to show him how they envisioned him fitting in with coordinator Norv Turner’s offense.

McKinnon sat in the Vikings’ running backs room and watched cut-ups of some Turner’s previous backs, including LaDainian Tomlinson.

"Just watching L.T. come out those cuts and set the linebacker, and stem and go the opposite way was definitely exciting to watch," McKinnon said Friday while taking part in Minnesota’s rookie minicamp.

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Tomlinson was one of the league’s most versatile, and best, backs while playing part of his career under Turner. While McKinnon won’t be asked to take on a Tomlinson-like workload — after all, Adrian Peterson is still around — they do see McKinnon filling a specific role in Turner’s offense.

Turner, going back as far as his days as the Washington Redskins’ head coach, has had a diminutive, but speedy third-down back, someone capable of catching the ball out of the backfield and working in open space. Brian Mitchell was the first in the line of Turner’s pass-catching backs in Washington. Tomlinson certainly excelled in the role. Darren Sproles is the recent, outstanding example.

"Similar, very similar," Vikings’ coach Mike Zimmer said of McKinnon relating to those players. "You’d have to ask Norv this, but from our conversations, he’s been thinking a lot about ways we can use him."

The film viewing was the first step in Turner’s work with McKinnon, who might be able to fill the third-down, pass-catching back role as soon as his first season, despite his relative inexperience in the role coming from Georgia Southern.

Minnesota has Peterson to take the bulk of the carries, and he’s only one season removed from the second-most rushing yards in NFL history in his MVP season. The Vikings lost Peterson’s main backup and the usual third-down back when Toby Gerhart signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent for his first shot at an every-down role.

Matt Asiata is a converted fullback, who can help spell Peterson on early downs, but McKinnon’s development could lead him to having a vital role as a rookie.

"Coach Turner has talked about running routes and things like that, so right now I’m guessing that’s about the only new way," McKinnon said of his role. "But I really can’t tell. All I can really do is come out every day, give it all I’ve got and just leave the rest in their hands."

He has the right mindset when he looks at the NFL backs he’s tried to emulate, saying he likes Tomlinson and Sproles, along with Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles. For a more classic example, he mentioned Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.

Zimmer is used to defending those backs and likes what he’s seen in McKinnon in the early going.

"I think we’re going to find some things for him to do," Zimmer said. "He’s short in stature but he’s got big legs and a big rear end. He’s got explosiveness, so I think we’ll find some things for him to do.

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McKinnon will need to develop. His biggest season at Georgia Southern came as a junior. He ran for 1,817 yards and 20 touchdowns. He only attempted 49 passes while starting 14 games as a quarterback.

Switching to full-time running back as a senior, McKinnon ran for 1,050 yards. But the skills that appeal to NFL teams weren’t necessarily on display in his college team’s offense. McKinnon rarely pass blocked. He had 10 total catches, including three as a senior.

McKinnon’s new responsibilities will include catching passes.

"I feel real comfortable," McKinnon said. "Ran a little bit different offense in college, as far as catching the ball, I’m really comfortable with it."

Invited to the Senior Bowl, McKinnon got his first chance to show his well-rounded game. He turned heads at the Senior Bowl and at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds and placed among the best of the running backs in each individual test.

The Senior Bowl was his first experience in being asked to pass block.

"I did it the first time at the Senior Bowl and it was real difficult just because I wasn’t really coached up on the technique," McKinnon said. "It’s something we’ve been working on here, small techniques versus different looks. (Running backs coach Kirby Wilson) does a great job at breaking that down with us and going in-depth with it. We’re just taking it day by day and keep working on it." 

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