There were a lot of things Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon wasn’t “supposed” to do.
As a senior at Georgia Southern, he wasn’t supposed to beat Florida in his final collegiate game, the first time the Gators had ever lost to an FCS team. Coming out of a school with little history of success in the pros, he wasn’t supposed to get drafted, but after a dominant combine performance, the Vikings took him in the third round last year. And finally, going to a team with the best running back in the world, Adrian Peterson, McKinnon wasn’t supposed to see much playing time as an NFL rookie.
But after Peterson’s indefinite suspension, McKinnon stepped up, rushing for 538 yards in six starts, including a breakout 135-yard performance in Week 4. After an offseason spent recovering from back surgery – and with AP back in the fold – McKinnon heads to Vikings camp determined to push Peterson for reps, and prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. The odds may be against him, but the man accustomed to exceeding expectations believes it’ll be business as usual in 2015.
When you were at Georgia Southern, what was it like to beat Florida when you were four-touchdown underdogs?
It was one of the best moments of my life. Just being a small school, we had never done that. It’s rare that you see it. It’s pretty much like David and Goliath. Nobody thinks you’re gonna win the game. Just after everything we went through that year, not being able to make the playoffs my senior year because they were making the move to Division I, everything my teammates went through, to finish on that note was one more achievement that we accomplished. But I would say it was the best one.
At Georgia Southern you also played some quarterback. Do you ever try to talk the Vikings’ coaches into letting you throw some passes?
Nah, I never did that [laughs]. I’m still trying to get good as a running back. But you never know. My main focus is trying to become the best all-around running back I can be.
What was the most surprising thing about your rookie season?
I didn’t expect to play as much as I did coming into the season. Thought I’d be more special teams, more of that role, but then everything happened [with Peterson’s suspension] and things went down. But I wouldn’t say I didn’t expect it, because I always prepare myself to be a starter. At the same time, I wasn’t expecting everything to happen like it did.
What was it like in the Vikings’ locker room as the Peterson situation was unfolding?
At first the situation was at a standstill, nobody knew what was gonna happen. I just think it was an opportunity to continue to get better. To take in the stuff that the coaches were telling me, and Adrian was telling me and have a chance to fight for that starting position throughout the year. I felt like I was getting better and better, but then the surgery put me out. That was a heartbreaker.
Do you find it weird that the best running back in the history of Georgia Southern before you was a guy named Adrian Peterson, and now you’re following another running back named Adrian Peterson in the pros?
Yeah that’s crazy. When I first got down to Georgia Southern, all you heard about was that Adrian Peterson. I got to meet him and got to know him while I was down there. Just a good guy, a hardworking dude. He came out and got drafted so I always wanted to be one of the next guys to come out of the school and get drafted. Just keep the trend going, because there’s not a lot of us that got drafted from that school. And then I got drafted and I got to meet the other Adrian Peterson and he’s just down-to-earth, humble, works hard and is probably the greatest running back ever. So I just try to learn from him, take what I can and apply it to my game.
Peterson is one of the best players in the NFL, so how did the team handle losing him for the season?
I mean, it was tough not having a guy like AP in the locker room, but at the same time, after that happened we still had pretty much the whole season left. So it’s not like we could quit or forfeit. Everybody had to get back on track, next man up, find a way to contribute to the team and find the effort to contribute to winning games. At times last year things didn’t go our way, we lost some close games, but you know, we’re a young team and it’s a learning process. I think it’s better for us for this upcoming season. There are a lot of situations from last year that we can look at and learn from.
Were you able to talk to Adrian while he was serving his suspension?
After everything had happened I hit him up, just saying that he was in my prayers and I was hoping everything would work out for him. Didn’t get much of a chance to talk to him after that. When he came back we didn’t really ask about the situation, so nah, not too much.
Did you always expect him to come back?
I didn’t really keep up with it too much. I didn’t really know anything about it. I was hoping he’d come back; everybody was – having a guy like that is big. Eventually he did. So you know when he came back, everybody was really happy to see him. Got out there in practice, I think it was OTAs, he was out there moving around. Moving really good. Everybody’s glad to have him back.
Based on photos, AP looks like he’s in the best shape of his career. What have you learned from working with him?
He’s a fun guy to be around. I got a chance to go down to Texas and work out with him, and beforehand I was trying to figure out how the workouts were going to go, and he said, “It’s gonna be work!”
I finally go out there and we got to running and I can cosign: He is in the best shape of his life! If you know Adrian, you know it’s not shocking that he’s in the best shape of his life. Just being around a guy like that, that has the work ethic, that you grew up watching and you look up to, being able to work with him to get better is definitely a blessing.
So now that you’re healthy and he’s back, are you prepared for your role to change?
I don’t know exactly how the coaches are going to work that out, or what’s going to happen. We [just] started training camp and it’s just going to be a process, and all I can do is continue to get better at everything I need to. Showcase to coaches and my teammates what I’ve been working on and know how much better I’ve been getting. And just let it play out in camp. But ultimately it’s the coaches’ decision how they’re going to use their number-one and number-two backs. I’m looking forward to it. All the running backs are great guys. They’ve been helping me ever since I got here and I can’t thank them enough for stuff like that.
A lot of people think the Vikings could surprise teams this year because of the return of AP, the maturation of Teddy Bridgewater and all the young guys. What are your expectations for this season?
I would say to win the Super Bowl. That’s the ultimate expectation: To win a championship. Last year we finished third, not where we wanted to. The good thing about it is that we got training camp to get prepared up until the first game against San Fran. We got coaches like coach Turner and coach Zim who are gonna push us to the extreme limits to be the best that we can, and it’s gonna show on Sundays.
Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said you looked faster this year. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, I would definitely say so. Last year, I felt pretty good coming in and then I played with an injury for a little bit so I didn’t really feel up to myself. But coming out this year with rehab and stuff like that, going out to California and working out with Rudy [Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph], OTAs, minicamp, working on my footwork…I definitely felt faster, quicker. I’m looking forward to everything that comes with it.
Last season you had your first major injury and surgery. Was recovering more difficult than you imagined?
I felt like everything slowed down when I got the surgery. The rehab process is four months; I felt like every day was just moving so slow. Not being able to be at meetings or practice. Having to go and walk the treadmill for ten minutes. I felt like everything was so slow. When I finally got done, I felt a lot better, but I would say for the first half of the rehab process everything was slow. It was hard. I had to get my flexibility back. My back was tight constantly. I had to get the kinks worked back out. Just got better and better every day with it. I got to give a lot of credit to the training staff.
Before your injury, you were a fantasy football favorite; were you aware of your sudden fame when it happened?
I never played or kept up with it. Last year, I kinda got on the radar and had people coming up to me asking about stuff like that. It’s pretty cool, but at the same time I don’t really know what’s going on in a fantasy football league. I don’t exactly know how it works, but I gained some good points, you know. I’m happy I could do that for you [laughs].