MANKATO, Minn. –It was a game of numbers for Jerick McKinnon this offseason.
In addition to **changing his jersey number** from 31 to 21 to honor his mother, McKinnon saw another set of digits change: his weight.
"I've been able to put on some weight this offseason in the weight room, and I just feel like it's all coming together," McKinnon said.
The third-year running back proudly told media members following Monday's practice that he's gained 11 pounds, bumping him into the 200-club from last season's 195 playing weight. McKinnon believes the extra bulk will increase his durability, and Vikings running backs coach Kevin Stefanski agrees.
"The more mass you have, the better chance you have against some of these big linebackers who are 240, 250 pounds," Stefanski said. "I think that's just an area where Jerick adds a little bit of bulk but doesn't lose any athleticism or any foot speed because of it."
McKinnon said he struggled last year to maintain his weight, and he's been intentional about his diet and nutrition plan this offseason.
"It's hard, being out here [at practice] for so long, and you're not really hungry, but you have to force yourself to eat," McKinnon said. "Nutrition is definitely key. I learned that from our strength coaches and nutritionists that we have, so I try to stay on top of the little things and be as professional I can in all areas."
Nutrition isn't the only way McKinnon has taken care of himself. After being sidelined for a few days with a minor lower back issue, McKinnon made the most of the team's day off Sunday.
"[Doing] treatment, just doing whatever it took to get me back out here practicing and back at full speed," he said. "I'm dedicated to my body – I learned that from year one."
McKinnon's hard work paid off, as he recently returned to full practice participation. He was all smiles after 11-on-11 reps Monday afternoon.
"It's been good," McKinnon said. "I've been limited the past couple of days, and it's been a little frustrating. I haven't been able to run, [and] I've kind of just been standing in one spot, so just being out here, getting in the competition, getting banged around a little bit, it feels good."
Even with two seasons under his belt, McKinnon said he's learning something new every day and keeps a close eye on Adrian Peterson, both on film and in person. McKinnon would like the opportunity to contribute as much as possible in 2016, but he's just taking it day by day and working to improve in any way he can.
In his first season coaching Minnesota's running backs unit after overseeing the tight ends in 2014 and 2015, Stefanski has been impressed with McKinnon – from his physical skill set to his work ethic and attitude on the field.
"Jerick's done a really nice job," Stefanski said. "I think we're all still trying to figure out exactly what Jerick can do, because he can do so many things. To his credit, he's really worked hard in all aspects – whether it be pass protection, route running, his runs, and I know he's out here working hard in special teams. Jerick's just ready to help in anything that we really ask him to do."
McKinnon is taking each day in stride – he's less concerned about his job title than he is about the work he accomplishes for the team.
"I'm just going with the flow," McKinnon said. "Work on my craft, work on my pass pro, work on my technique, reads, footwork, all those things.
"When the time presents itself, if I'm given the opportunity to contribute more, then I'm happy to," he added.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner said those opportunities may come up for McKinnon in certain situations this season. When Peterson missed a majority if the 2014 season, McKinnon filled a big role and was an explosive option for Minnesota, according to Turner. Although McKinnon played fewer snaps in 2015, Turner utilized him more heavily in the last third of the season and liked what he saw in specific scenarios. Turner expects McKinnon's role this season to be determined on a week-to-week basis, depending on opponent and offensive game plan.
"He got better at some things," Turner said. "We started using him in the passing game, moving him around a little bit […] it's nice having him because we know he's an explosive player that can make big plays."
McKinnon's efforts have not gone unnoticed by his coaches or his teammates. Peterson, entering his 10th season with the Vikings, said he's impressed with the younger running back's evolution and understands the strategy of rotating McKinnon in on certain snaps or series.
"When you have him on the field, he's able to make plays one on one. Sometimes better than our receivers," Peterson said. "It's only smart to use that guy and put him in there and give the defense some looks so we can take advantage of that."
Peterson said he's specifically noticed McKinnon improve in run game physicality, footwork and crisp route running.
From his rookie season until now, McKinnon has widely increased his skill set and plans to continue developing in whatever ways he can. He's proud of how his pass protection has progressed and said he'll "have a lot to showcase" in whatever opportunities he's handed moving forward.
"It's just about being able to come out here every day, working hard," McKinnon said. "Presenting myself to the coaches and my teammates, [showing] them that I'm getting better and working hard and improving myself."