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Xs & Os: How 'Freakish Athlete' Kene Nwangwu's Size & Speed Could Help Vikings in 2021

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have drafted three running backs – all in the first four rounds – over the past five drafts.

After trading up to snag Dalvin Cook 41st overall in 2017, Minnesota drafted Alexander Mattison with the 102nd overall pick in 2019.

The newest running back to join the fold is Kene Nwangwu, whom the Vikings selected at the 119th spot this spring. The former Iowa State standout played running back and returned kicks for the Cyclones and was the first of three players the Vikings selected in the fourth round.

Nwangwu was drafted a round before Minnesota grabbed receiver Ihmir-Smith Marsette, who played for the rival Hawkeyes.

Former Vikings linebacker-turned-analyst Ben Leber sees some similarities between the two.

"They both come from college cultures that they were never the true focal point. And I think you're finding guys that are OK with the grind and are OK playing the role," Leber said. "I don't think that you're going to see [Nwangwu] try to come in and be shocked by the fact that, 'Hey, Dalvin's the guy.' "

That being said, though, Leber sees plenty of opportunity for Nwangwu, whom he deemed "a freakish athlete" to make an early impact for Minnesota.

See more of what Leber had to say about Nwangwu below, and be sure to follow him on Twitter @nacholeber.

Player Profile: Kene Nwangwu, Iowa State,redshirt senior

Nwangwu served as the Cyclones' backup running back this past season, recording 339 rushing yards and four scores.

His biggest impact came on special teams, though. Nwangwu ranked third in the Big 12 and seventh nationally with an average at 28.9 yards per kickoff return, and he recorded five returns of 30-plus yards, including two of 65 yards or longer.

His 2,470 career kickoff yards is the most in school history and third all-time in Big 12 history.

Nwangwu said he also has experience as a gunner on punt returns and on the punt block team.

He's got speed to burn, as many draft experts considered him among the fastest players in the entire 2021 draft class.

Although he is listed at 210 pounds, Nwangwu was unofficially clocked at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Iowa State's Pro Day in March. Some measured the time at 4.31 seconds. Iowa State also recorded him with a 37-inch vertical jump, and he executed 22 reps on the 225-pound bench press.

2021 Outlook: New team, new number.

After wearing No. 3 at Iowa State, Nwangwu will wear No. 26 for Minnesota.

It's no secret, as mentioned above, that the Vikings are pretty well set at RB1 and RB2 with Cook and Alexander Mattison, but that doesn't mean Nwangwu won't be contributing.

"With [Cyclones running back] Breece Hall, he was OK being that rotational running back," Leber said. "So if that's what it takes to get on the field, I think he's going to be OK with that."

Leber added: "He's got 'return guy' written all over him. He accepts that role; he embraces that role. He wants to be one of the best."

During a media session over Vikings rookie minicamp last month, Nwangwu expressed excitement for learning from Cook in the running backs room, as well as continuing to solidify his skill set in the return game.

"There's so many parts to being a kick returner, just even securing the kick and rolling into it – that's something I can keep working on from college to the NFL level," Nwangwu said. "But whenever the time comes, whenever we get to take full-speed reps, treating it like a game rep is how I get better.

"Just seeing how [Cook] approaches practices, seeing how he approaches learning plays, just the whole part of being an NFL player. When I got drafted by the Vikings, I was already trying to watch his clips and just study from him," Nwangwu later added. "Just anything that involves being an NFL player, being a running back for the Vikings, I'm ready to learn from him."

Leber does believe Nwangwu will vie for the kick returner role, but he also sees potential for the rookie in other special teams phases.

The former linebacker pointed out that the Vikings often find some of their top tacklers on the offensive side of the ball.

"You look at the last couple of years, and who are some of our best cover guys? It's Mike Boone. It's C.J. Ham. It's running backs that can go down and … they know how to navigate running through the traffic and making tackles in the punt game and the kickoff game," Leber said. "Some of our best tackling guys on special teams are our running backs. A guy like Nwangwu, I wouldn't look at him as just a return guy. I think that he can be a gunner, he can play on punt team, he can probably go down and make some tackles."

View photos of Iowa State RB Kene Nwangwu who was selected in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

GM's Take: "[Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu] really stood on the table for this kid," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. "When you look at the touches that he does have there, take away the explosive kickoff return ability that he has, but he's a one-cut runner that fits perfectly in this scheme.

"When you've got a kid that' a 6-foot running back, that's 210 pounds and that runs a 4.31 in the 40, that kid has a chance to be pretty special. Kennedy's done a great job from developing the Michael Boones of the world. Dalvin Cook, he's done a great job developing him, too. But that's why I put a lot of faith and trust in these coaches in seeing the results, when they get these types of kids, what they end up being."

Film Breakdown: Former Vikings player and coach Pete Bercich, now a Vikings Radio Network analyst, looked at some of Nwangwu's tape from Iowa State.

Bercich highlighted Nwangwu's speed, saying he's "explosive" in the kicking game.

He specifically broke down a return of Nwangwu's against Oklahoma.

"What he does so well is that he sets up the returns," Bercich explained. "You see him starting up the middle of the field and then breaking it to the wide side. And once he gets through those first two levels of blockers and he gets himself in the open, you'll notice – right around the 40-yard line, No. 47, has the angle on him. Well, at least he thought he did.

"[Nwangwu] gets outside, turns the corner, and there's no one who's going to catch him. That 4.3 speed is unbelievable once he gets himself in the open field," Bercich added.

On another return, Bercich pointed out that the kicking team "reduced the field" in an effort to corner Nwangwu on the right side. Spoiler alert: it didn't work.

"Again, what he does so well is that as soon as he catches this kickoff, he's taking this thing north-to-south to set up his blocks, to try to pull in all the defenders and open up the wide side of the field," Bercich said. "Once he gets to about the 20-yard line, you're going to see the blockings are all up front … and he's almost 1-on-1 with the kicker. He breaks that thing back, and again at the 40-yard line there are three defenders that have an angle on him, but not one of them catches him. That's the speed and burst that this kid has."

On kickoff return, Bercich said, Nwangwu can make an immediate impact.

Don't ignore his ability in the run game, either, if the Vikings find ways to use him there behind Cook and Mattison.

Bercich said Nwangwu's success offensively all depends on his blockers getting him to the second level. And if that happens? He's gone.

To demonstrate Nwangwu's skill set as a running back, Bercich looked at a game against TCU.

"On this play, just a simple handoff, but once he breaks through that line, there's a safety untouched, you're not going to get him," he said. "A shoe-duster tackle, he gets by him – boom! – explosive play all the way to the end zone.

"You look at it from the end zone angle, and it looks even better," Bercich continued. "Just a simple zone block up front, the same way the Vikings do it; they have a safety that's completely unblocked, you can get him 1-on-1, burst to the outside. Takes him a little while to plant that foot and cut that thing back north-and-south, but once he has that straight-line speed, man, you're not going to catch him."