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Kene Nwangwu Exhibits Real Threat on Kickoff Return & Fake Punt

EAGAN, Minn. – When Kene Nwangwu was tackled after gaining 23 yards on Minnesota's first kickoff return last week, he told teammates he'd make the next one count.

And he certainly did. To open the second half, Nwangwu fielded the Ravens kickoff and darted, weaved and zoomed 98 yards to the opposing end zone for a touchdown.

"I was talking to [Alexander] Mattison and [C.J.] Ham and I was like, 'The next one's going to hit,' " Nwangwu recalled for Twin Cities media members Thursday. "Pretty much what I saw is, I got past [the first] level and saw the double team in front of me, and I just took it to the sideline, and it was just a foot race."

According to Next Gen Stats, Nwangwu traveled 115.9 yards on the play for the greatest distance of any ball carrier in the NFL in Week 9.

The rookie topped out at 20.6 miles per hour for the fifth-fastest speed by a ball carrier.

Nwangwu's speed isn't surprising, considering he logged an unofficial time of 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Iowa State's Pro Day. (For reference, had he run that time officially at the NFL Scouting Combine, Nwangwu would have tied for 10th fastest all-time).

And it's especially not shocking to his mother, Ogonna, who says her son's speed was pointed out to her early on.

"We were at a family picnic, and I was running with 12-year-olds – and I was, like, 6 and beating them," Nwangwu said. "And then my auntie was telling my mom, 'Your son, you might need to put him in sports and all that. But I just try to go out there and use my God-given abilities the best I can.

"I didn't wake up and start training to become fast," he smiled.

Nwangwu's kickoff return was only one of two flashy plays in just his second career game.

He also played a major role in the Vikings first fake punt attempt since September 2017. Safety Josh Metellus took the snap and handed off to Nwangwu, who took his first NFL carry nine yards for a first down.

"I was yelling – not like loudly – to the offense, 'Hey we're coming right back out.' Because we're just confident if we've got something called out there that we're going to execute," Nwangwu said. "But for us, you just treat it like a regular punt. You don't want to be antsy or anything because we practice it so many times. So just having confidence that you're going to make a play. That's pretty much how we treat it."

Asked if it's something the team now has in its back pocket for future use this season, Nwangwu emphasized trusting Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken.

"I think just for us it's really whatever Coach Ficken has installed for the week," Nwangwu said. "We just want to be able to execute it to the best of our abilities. So it's pretty much how we treat it like if he wants to call, if we have like 20 fakes that week, we're going to practice all 20 fakes."

Ficken said Nwangwu's unique skill set provides "a little different dynamic" for Minnesota's special teams units.

And while it was disappointing to see Nwangwu's debut delayed by a knee injury suffered in preseason, the wait was worth it.

"We've always had a plan for him when he came back," Ficken said. "It was good to [get that play] called and be effective, most importantly. We want to make sure we call it, we want to make sure it works, and it's a positive effect on the game. I was happy for the guys to be able to go out and execute that."

Nwangwu's big day led to the former Cyclone being named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

He was the first Vikings return specialist to receive the honor since Marcus Sherels for his Week 8 performance at Chicago in 2015.

His initial thought about receiving the award, Nwangwu noted, was, "We've got to give this to the whole unit."

"It's literally 10 people blocking for one person to score," he said. "I don't even think I got touched. That's a testament to that group."

Heading into his third NFL game and beyond, Nwangwu understands that he's already alerted opponents to what he's capable of.

It's quite possible that kickers will simply aim for touchbacks to avoid putting the ball in Nwangwu's hands. He's not frustrated by the prospect, though.

"I mean, that's the goal. You want teams to respect you and respect our unit," he said. "For us, our mentality is we just want to be a spark for our team. Making a big play. Making sure that we synergy the offense and defense together. So that's like a compliment to us."

Ficken said "of course" he'd like to give Nwangwu as many opportunities as possible.

"He's got that rare skill set, and he's very talented. We want to give talented guys the ball, and we always think about those situations," he said. "It's going to depend on the team we're playing, who the opponent is, not just on special teams, but on offense and defense. The type of game it is, if it's a high-scoring game, whatever the situation is.

"You would like to, but there's always going to be a plan on how we approach that," Ficken continued. "That's going to be communication through [Head Coach Mike Zimmer] and I, and we'll make sure we always have a plan going into the game with that, depending on where it is in the game, early, late. But yeah, it's always exciting to get a dynamic like him the ball in his hands."