Kevin O’Connell Names New Kick Returner

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The Vikings put together a 53-man roster for the upcoming season, but one guy is missing — Kene Nwanwgu. The running back is dealing with a back injury and was placed on injured reserve. His absence will be felt much more on special teams than on offense, and the Vikings might miss his explosive returns. A new kick returner must be found, and the head coach has one guy in mind.

Kevin O’Connell Names New Kick Returner

Nwangwu has been an outstanding returner for the Vikings since he was drafted in 2021. But he will not be available, so special teams coordinator Matt Daniels must find someone to take over as the top returner until the second-team All-Pro returns. He is eligible to come off IR before the Week 5 matchup, but it remains to be seen if he is healthy at that point because back injuries can linger.

 Names New Kick Returner
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At the top of the team’s depth chart is Ty Chandler, a sophomore running back who has done many good things when given the opportunity in two straight preseasons. Head coach Kevin O’Connell envisions him to replace Nwangwu:

I think Ty (Chandler) did some really good things in training camp anytime he had the ball in his hands. He is comfortable back there so he’s going to get some opportunities. We’re going to take a look at some other guys now that we kind of know and can project what that 48 [players on the active gameday roster] looks like for next Sunday. I feel comfortable with Ty back there, I think he’s earned the right to get those first opportunities, and knowing Ty, I’m sure he’s going to take it and run with it.

Kevin O’Connell
Tennessee running back Ty Chandler (8) is defended by Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal (8) during a game between Tennessee and Texas A&M in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

Chandler has some experience as a kick returner. Not in the pros outside of a couple in last year’s preseason, but he was a kick returner in college and returned 37 kicks for 850 yards and 1 touchdown. He is a logical choice and possesses similar skills to Nwangwu, especially a similar explosiveness and straight-line speed.

Other candidates could be wideout Brandon Powell, who returned 33 kicks in college and 57 in the NFL. Jalen Nailor logged nine returns at Michigan State, and new running back Myles Gaskin six at Washington and two in the NFL. Special teams ace NaJee Thompson returned 7 kicks at Georgia Southern.

The Vikings have certainly prepared for the possibility that Nwangwu might not be healthy in Week 1, giving those guys some practice reps.

Chandler will not only be the kick returner but also have a role on offense. Alexander Mattison will be the starter. His backups are Chandler and Gaskin, and it remains to be seen if Gaskin will cut into Chandler’s snaps because the team clearly likes his running style, a combination of speed and power.

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The sophomore out of Tennessee and North Carolina played well in last year’s preseason but missed the majority of the season with a thumb injury and was stuck behind Dalvin Cook and Mattison but received six carries for 20 yards in the season finale in Chicago.

With Cook’s departure, the Vikings had some available carries, and he entered a camp competition with Nwangwu and rookie DeWayne McBride. The veteran got early in camp, and the rookie was cut, so Chandler should receive his opportunity sooner rather than later.

The Vikings will open the season on September 10 against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Chandler should be expected to contribute on offense and special teams.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt