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Kene Nwangu
Minnesota Vikings

How Kene Nwangwu Can Earn More Playing Time

  • Ryan Fowler
  • December 31, 2021
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A day-three talent whose game initially drew scouts as a special teams ace, Kene Nwangwu’s developmental arc has become an accelerated grace period due to the shuffling of bodies within the Minnesota Vikings’ running backs room. With Dalvin Cook in and out of the lineup, and Alexander Mattison failing to avoid the backs of his offensive lineman over the last few weeks, increased usage of their tarped-over Ferrari in Nwagwu could provide a pop to Minnesota’s offensive game plan that’s much needed over the homestretch of the season. Following Nwangwu’s return from injured reserve for a lower-body injury he suffered in the preseason, Vikings faithful clamored to see his 4.3 40 speed unleashed; and not just as a KOR specialist. While his game, and career arc, thus far have progressed into one very similar to that of current Atlanta Falcons do-it-all talent Cordarrelle Patterson at the onset of his professional tenure due to his ability to flip the field with his speed (top graded kick returner), Nwangwu is much more than a gadget threat and should be used accordingly—like Patterson has for Arthur Smith’s unit. While he failed to amass a boatload of carries or serve a role as a three-down bellcow back during his time at Iowa State, 12 rushes on 28 total offensive snaps so far this fall has forced the right to question Zimmer on his overall usage thus far.  Let’s play devil’s advocate for a second.  As a back with burst, surely his physical talent is no doubt impressive. Despite that, Nwangwu hasn’t received any significant game action in the nine games he’s been active. Why not? General manager Rick Spielman thought highly enough to expend an early day-three selection on him, and we’ve seen late-round ball-carriers burst onto the scene before, and, more importantly, you’d think if he can find kick return lanes, he can find running lanes, right? Hear me out. As a kick returner, there’s space galore. It’s a full sprint to contact, usually around the 15-20-yard line where the return man is granted 10-plus yards of space to get up to speed and read creases. As a running back, similar to a punt returner, those creases are minimized and the ball-carrier is forced to make defenders whiff and change direction on a whim; a lot of the heavy lifting to find open grass is done single-handedly. For Nwangwu, who had limited experience at the collegiate level between the tackles, let alone the NFL as a primary ball-carrier, you can begin to understand why Zimmer hasn’t thrown caution to the wind and handed over the keys to his ground attack to a rookie back, despite the potential reward.  However, it is his first season, and like all good things, it requires the necessary time, coaching, and snaps for Nwangwu to work up to where he will feel confident enough to uncork his elite speed. A game that saw him total 33 yards on the ground at 11 yards a pop, the progression of Nwangwu’s game was ever-apparent in his small workload against the Chicago Bears. While his inability to remain patient has been a slap on the wrist in his early days for Minnesota, on his first carry here he’s able to wiggle his way through the first level—allowing blocks to develop—only to then flip on the nitrous to quickly find himself ahead of the sticks and in a matchup against the closing safety. And while his impatience is understandable for Nwangwu, whose foot quickness and ability to blow past defenders has been a trait of his since peewee football, when matched up against similarly quick defenders, it helps to have a 315-pound man-mover in front of you to make the process just a tad easier. The key for Nwangwu is time. Time to learn, time to develop, and in due time, the snaps will come. An uber-talented, multi-versatile prospect who has all the fundamental tools to become a unique chess piece within the Vikings’ offense, his best football is down the road, but with speed like his, the future may seem closer than it appears.

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Ryan Fowler