Vikings have big hopes for McKinnon

As a 5-9 option quarterback at Georgia Southern, Vikings draft pick Jerick McKinnon -- who will be used as a running back -- didn't exactly pick up pass protection. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The more film Kirby Wilson watched of the 5-foot-9 option quarterback from the fifth-largest school in Georgia, the more convinced he was that Jerick McKinnon could be a NFL running back, after all.

Yes, McKinnon was inexperienced, and yes, he would be coming to the NFL from a scheme that resemebles nothing like what professional teams run, but there was enough on tape of McKinnon to reward those willing to extrapolate.

There he was slicing through the middle of Georgia's defense in 2012. There he was banging into defenders as a blocker, lining up as a slot receiver and taking pitches in a win over Florida in 2013. Each clip led Wilson a little closer to the conclusion that putting McKinnon at running back might be a risk worth taking.

"At the end of the day, after reviewing every game and every snap, you came away convinced that if he fits character-wise and things check out, and he's capable of learning, he's got a chance," said Wilson, the Minnesota Vikings' running backs coach. "All those things just started adding up."

The sum total was enough to convince the Vikings to use the 96th pick in the draft on McKinnon, whom they hope can spell Adrian Peterson and add a dynamic element to the Vikings' offense that some of coordinator Norv Turner's best attacks have had: the diminutive, do-it-all running back who can hurt a defense in a number of different ways.

"The change-of-pace backs like LT [LaDainian Tomlinson] and [Darren] Sproles? Similar, very similar," coach Mike Zimmer said. "You'd have to ask Norv this, but from our conversations, he's been thinking a lot about ways we can use him."

If the Vikings intend to turn McKinnon into their version of Sproles -- who first blossomed as a return man and receiver for Turner in San Diego -- or Brian Mitchell (who became one of the league's great all-purpose threats while Turner was the Washington Redskins' head coach), they'll have to teach him plenty of new things. The first item on that list, Wilson said, would be pass protection; McKinnon got some work picking up blitzes at the Senior Bowl, but as a quarterback for a team that barely threw the ball in college, he wasn't in an ideal situation to learn it at Georgia Southern.

Still, Wilson saw McKinnon get better at blocking blitzers during his week at the Senior Bowl, and he recalled how willing he was to take on contact.

"You saw him improve every day, which was amazing," Wilson said. "You don't see that kind of progress unless you've got a guy who is detail-oriented, and has the physical tools to improve. If the heart is there, the rest can be added on. He showed an extremely high willingness to stick his face in there and block somebody."

Asked for the names of the running backs he'd like to emulate, McKinnon mentioned LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles, before name-checking Tomlinson and Sproles, almost like a young guitarist mentioning Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan for credibility. The Vikings drafted him, though, because they believe he can be the newest utility knife in Turner's offense, and if their projection is right, it's possible McKinnon can follow Mitchell's and Sproles' lineage.

"I got a chance to practice it at the Senior Bowl, so I'm kind of a little bit comfortable with it," McKinnon said of playing a traditional running back role. "Only thing that's a little bit different is the pass protection. I really hadn't had any technique on it or coached on it. So I'm really just looking to get with Coach Wilson and learn from the older guys the techniques and practicing on it."