Dec. 2—Iowa State used Kene Nwangwu the way the Vikings have so far, primarily as a kick returner — which makes sense because Nwangwu was one of the nation’s best as a college player and the Vikings have a solid running back duo in Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison.
But that changed this week because Cook is out with a separated shoulder. So, Nwangwu appears ready for his first real game as an NFL running back. Mike Zimmer said this week the rookie will back up Mattison the way Mattison regularly spells Cook.
“(We’ll) try to figure out things he’s doing really well and hopefully use him in those (situations),” the head coach said Wednesday.
Anticipation is high, at least among teammates and coaches.
“I’m excited about him. I’m excited about his future,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He’s already shown everybody what he can do returning the football.”
Nwangwu started the season sidelined by a hyper-extended knee suffered in the first preseason game and didn’t play until Nov. 7 at Baltimore. He ran once for nine yards and returned two kicks, one 98 yards for a touchdown in a 34-31 loss to the Ravens.
In last Sunday’s 34-26 loss at to the 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., he returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown. He also ran once for seven yards. It’s a small sample size, but it’s loaded.
“He’s an explosive athlete,” Vikings special-teams coach Ryan Ficken said. “I mean, he can get to his top-end speed really quickly. He’s quick. He can make that one violent cut … and can get vertical right away without even breaking his stride.”
Mattison has been a solid backup for two-plus seasons, and very good in two starts this season, rushing 26 times for 112 yards in a 31-17 victory over Seattle on Sept. 26, and 25 times for 113 yards in a 19-17 victory over Detroit on Oct. 17. But Nwangwu is one of the fastest players on the team and has demonstrated home run ability — just not from the backfield.
“What I anticipate is preparing the same way,” Nwangwu said. “I don’t make the decision to put myself out there, so I just prepare for whatever is needed for a starting running back.”
Nwangwu started only three games at tailback for the Cyclones, one each in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and spent the final three seasons of his college career behind Breece Hall, a Heisman Trophy candidate last fall. Nwangwu rushed for a career-high 77 yards on nine carries in a 42-6 victory over West Virginia last December but was among the Big 12 leaders in kick returns in all four of his seasons in Ames.
As a senior, his 28.9-yard average was fourth nationally among those with at least 10 returns, and first among those with 12 or more. He also was the Big 12 Scholar Athlete of the Year.
With the Vikings, Nwangwu is averaging 41.3 yards on five returns, so it’s not as if Minnesota won’t put him back there this week at Detroit just so he can back up Mattison.
“We’re attacking it like he’s our kickoff returner,” Ficken said. “He’s got a lot of value in that phase (of the game), obviously, and to this team. If he gets more carries on offense, that’s great. But we see him as the kickoff returner until our coach further says so.”
In four seasons with Iowa State, Nwangwu rushed 143 times for 744 yards, a solid 5.2-yard average, and the Vikings have seen enough to see what he can do as a running back.
“I think that’s his goal,” Zimmer said. “I think that he wants to get involved in the offense again.”
Asked this week if he felt he has fresh legs because he’s never been a featured back, Nwangwu said, “I mean, I wouldn’t know, because I didn’t have that many carries.”