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Daniels Hopes to Maximize Kick Return Opportunities for Kene Nwangwu

EAGAN, Minn. — Matt Daniels knows the pregame crescendo as the football rests on the tee awaiting its launch to start a game.

He also knows the airless-balloon sound that follows an anticlimactic touchback recorded on the opening kickoff.

The first-year Vikings special teams coordinator has visited U.S. Bank Stadium each of the past two seasons as an assistant with the Cowboys. The trips included a 3:25 p.m. kickoff in 2020 when the venue was without fans because of COVID-19 protocols and a raucous Halloween night last season.

Two opening kickoffs, two touchbacks.

He also was on the Rams sideline at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum back in 2018 when the opening kickoff against the Vikings also resulted in a touchback.

Daniels was asked if he'd like to see more kickoff returns happen.

"That's something that's been talked about by the [NFL's] Rules Committee, just in terms of trying to figure out how can we get more balls returned because you know how it is," Daniels said. "It's, 'All right, here we go.' You have a 3:25 kickoff, the crowd is getting going, first kickoff, 'Woo, woo, woo, woo,' and then the kickoff goes through the end zone, and it's like, 'Well, dang. That was that.'

"Everybody has a different philosophy from a head coaching standpoint on bringing the football out versus taking knees," Daniels added. "It's always depending on who you're going up against, who your returner is back there. There's a lot of factors that go into it and hopefully we'll see some numbers start to spike up a little bit."

According to league stats, NFL kickoffs resulted in touchbacks 57.5 percent of the time in 2021. That was the second-lowest frequency (behind 56.6 in 2017) since the NFL began spotting kickoffs at the 35-yard line instead of the 30 in 2016. It also marked a considerable shift from the highest rate (61.2 percent in 2020) in the past six seasons.

Which brings us to Kene Nwangwu, who made an incredible splash as a rookie by becoming the first player in NFL history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in his first five career games (stat kept since 1970).

Nwangwu earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for Week 9, as well as placement on the PFWA All-NFC and All-Rookie Teams.

The 2021 fourth-round pick averaged 32.2 yards per return but did not have enough attempts to qualify among league leaders. He totaled 579 yards on 18 returns in 11 games.

"Kene is exactly what I thought he was," Daniels said. "Explosive athlete."

Daniels told media members Tuesday that he planned to meet with Nwangwu on Wednesday to "get a better understanding of what he likes to run, whether it's sidelines, counters, bounces, is he a middle guy?"

While the return game is under construction and decisions on whether or not to run kickoffs out of the end zone will be shaped by Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and game situations, it is clear Daniels is fired up to coach Nwangwu.

"You see a guy who has a very, very explosive first step, the ability [break tackles], to get in and out of his cuts," Daniels said. "That's what you're looking for from a kick returner, is the ability to stick that foot in the ground and get vertical immediately. I'm really excited about the plan that we have for him and what we'll do this year with him."