Don’t Count Out a Lightning Quick Viking

Nov 24, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu (not shown) returns a kick for a touchdown against the New England Patriots during the third quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a good chance that you would get the same two or three answers after asking Vikings players who the fastest players on the team are. One popular vote-getter would certainly be Kalon Barnes. The cornerback out of Baylor ran a 4.23 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in 2022. Running back Ty Chandler posted a time of 4.38 but might not even be the fastest guy in his position room.

Don’t Count Out a Lightning Quick Viking

 Lightning Quick Viking
Nov 20, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu (26) in action against the Dallas Cowboys during the game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

It should be obvious by now. Kene Nwangwu and his track speed is the guy that shouldn’t be counted out for a more meaningful role in the upcoming season. The runner clocked a ridiculous 4.29 at his Pro Day in 2021 and a 4.32 at the scouting combine.

He was subsequently selected by the Vikes in the fourth round, primarily because of his speed and the ability to take kicks to the house – a job he is pretty good at as he managed to record a league-leading three kick return TDs in his first two career seasons and was named second-team All-Pro in 2022. Shockingly, Nwangwu hasn’t made a trip to the Pro Bowl, which is not a knock on him but shows the flaws of the voting process.

Nwanwgu is also second in yards per kick return over the last decade among all players with at least 30 kick returns, only trailing Cordarrelle Patterson.

The Vikings parted ways with their star runner Dalvin Cook. Alexander Mattison is now in the pole position to lead the running backs in carries. But behind Mattison, it will be rookie DeWayne McBride, Ty Chandler, and Nwangwu who must provide depth. The race for the RB1 gig or backup duties will be one of the primary competitions at training camp.

Head coach Kevin O’Connell said last month:

I feel really good about our running back room and Alex Mattison is a huge reason why. I think he’s proven that he can, whether over the past few years when he stepped in there, handling a really good workload and producing and also just in our short term together, his ability to handle the roles and responsibilities of that position in our offense, so I feel great about where Alex is at. The next step in his career is just obviously a little bit more consistent opportunities which we hope to provide for him.

And then with Kene and Ty, and obviously the rookie, we want to allow a real competition to take place. We feel that there’s talented guys behind Alex that can provide roles within our offense or maybe depending on down and distance, depending on situation in the game, we could get some different guys in there but all knowing that it’s about that complete group being able to do everything we ask them on every single snap both in the run and the pass game.

Kevin O’Connell
Year 1 of the O'Connell Era
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison (2) reacts after losing a wildcard game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

The coach clearly implied that it is Mattison’s job to lose, and the other players fight for the backup job. Nwangwu is clearly in the mix, and proof of that theory is that he took carries with the first team in OTAs and mandatory minicamp as the top backup. Rotowire wrote:

Nwangwu was frequently was used alongside quarterback Kirk Cousins in 11-on-11 snaps during Wednesday’s minicamp workout, The Athletic reports.

Nwangwu is a dynamic kickoff returne but will compete for a larger role as a running back after the release of Dalvin Cook. Nwangwu enters camp battling Ty Chandler and DeWayne McBride for snaps behind starter Alexander Mattison. It’s possible the backfield could be more of a committee, one in which Nwangwu’s speed could afford him a significant role.

Nwanwgu appears to be the front-runner for the RB2 spot. Of course, that doesn’t mean much before training camp, but it is noteworthy. It is now on Chandler and McBride to change that status quo by usurping the speedy athlete.

Chandler showed some flashes in last year’s preseason against the suspect competition in a small sample size and was hurt for most of the season. McBride was a productive runner in college, but UAB doesn’t play in a power-five conference, and he only caught five passes in his college days.

loss at San Francisco
Nov 28, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Kene Nwangwu (26) celebrates towards wide receiver Dan Chisena (85) as he scores a touchdown on a kickoff return during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports.

Nwanwgu is used to a backup role. During his career at Iowa State, Nwangwu was the backup of David Montgomery and Breece Hall and rarely saw the field because of them and only recorded 150 touches in four seasons. In his two years in the NFL, he was stuck behind Cook and Mattison, but Cook’s release opens the door to earn some carries in his third season.

In the first two seasons of his career, he showed outstanding speed on kick returns but was barely featured in the offense. His stat sheet shows 22 rushes for 75 yards in addition to 6 receptions for 30 yards.

The Vikings clearly emphasized the running game as the unit ranked 29th in rush EPA/play and 28th in rush DVOA in 2022 and held back the passing attack. Signing tight end Josh Oliver — a fantastic blocker — was the main move in the offseason to address the weakness other than replacing Cook.

Nwanwgu is one of the players to watch in training camp and the preseason. The expected reduction of kick returns could jeopardize his roster spot if he doesn’t show enough promise as a running back, so it will be crucial for him to reveal his worth to the offense.

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