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Track or Football Speed: Kene Nwangwu Has Both

EAGAN, Minn. – Kene Nwangwu already has impressed on kickoff returns, and he'll likely see more reps on offense, too.

Nwangwu recorded a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the 49ers on Sunday, just three weeks after a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Baltimore.

He also took his first offensive snap from scrimmage at San Francisco and finished the game with a single carry for seven yards on offense. With Dalvin Cook working to recover from a shoulder injury suffered against the Niners, it's fair to expect Nwangwu to get more reps at running back.

"Well, I think that's his goal," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think he wants to be involved in the offense again. He had a few plays last week, one carry.

"But I don't think he really wants to be satisfied being a kick returner, "Zimmer added. "He wants to be involved in the offense, and we'll find some ways [to use him]."

Zimmer said Nwangwu will ideally be used in specific situations that favor his abilities:

"We're gonna talk about it more as the week goes on, but he'll go in there and spell, kind of like what we've done with [Alexander] Mattison, try to figure out things he's doing really good and hopefully use him in those."

Nwangwu spoke to Twin Cities media members Wednesday and said he won't be doing anything different in his routine this week because he's always been practicing as if he'll get an opportunity on offense.

"What I anticipate is preparing the same way," he said. "I don't make the decision to put myself out there, so I just prepare for whatever is needed for a starting running back."

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said he's "excited" about Nwangwu's future in the NFL. Even as a rookie, the former Iowa State standout has impressed coaches and teammates with his talent and drive.

"He's already showed everybody what he can do returning the football. It was unfortunate that he got hurt returning the football in the preseason, otherwise we probably could have brought him along faster," Cousins said. "He's studying hard, he's a pro in the way he goes about his business, and he certainly has the athletic ability to be a great player.

"Looking forward to giving him more opportunities and letting him show the kind of player that he is to everybody's that's watching," Cousins added.

Nwangwu was asked about the kickoff return at Levi's Stadium that enabled the Vikings to stay in a close game.

"I think just schematically, we thought we were going to get a couple [kick return chances], just being outside and having the elements out there," Nwangwu noted. "We tried them going to the right, and then we started working the boundary, and pretty much everyone is blocking people. Our double team people are not moving, they're stuck in place. They made a pretty big hole for me to go through and make the kicker miss.

"The last [hole] at Baltimore was pretty big, but this one was pickup [truck] big – like, you could drive a car through it," he later added. "I saw the hole, and then I saw the kicker making an angle, so I was just going to cut back behind the double team."

Nwangwu is the sixth player — and third Viking — to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a player's first seven games:

Nwangwu, five games, Vikings

Jerome Mathis, six games, Texans

Brandon Tate, six games, Patriots

Cordarrelle Patterson, seven games, Vikings

Percy Harvin, seven games, Vikings

Darrick Vaughn, seven games, Falcons

He's already shown incredible vision in the return phase, but he acknowledged that seeing the field on a kickoff is different than on an offensive play from the line of scrimmage.

"I think the difference is just spacing. You've got more space with kickoff return, and it's like you don't want to stop your feet, you just want to keep going and make your cuts at full speed," Nwangwu explained. "Being a running back, you want to diagnose and be slow going through the hole, then fast hitting it through. I think the main difference is speed and the distance between the defenders."

There's no doubt Nwangwu is speedy.

He was unofficially clocked at 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the Cyclones Pro Day. (Some measured the time at 4.31 seconds, which was the time mentioned by General Manager Rick Spielman during a media session after drafting Nwangwu). He also was a standout in track and field as a high schooler.

Straight-line speed isn't exactly the same as "football speed" – just ask literally anyone on the team.

"Some guys put the pads on, and they run a 4.5, not 4.3," Zimmer said.

"Track speed is like in a straight line. Football speed is like being able to stop and accelerate, change of direction," Nwangwu said.

"I know that track people have tried to come out and run routes. There's a difference between being straight-ahead fast and being able to stop and go," Cousins added.

Fortunately for everyone? Nwangwu has both.

"Natural football speed, in terms of being able to transition in and out of cuts and in and out of routes, drop their weight, change direction, it's a different kind of movement skill and certainly a running back has to do much of that," Cousins explained. "You'll always take the ability to do that and be 4.3 over the ability to do that and be 4.6 – but you'd like to think Kene has both tools and that's a large reason he's been so effective and why we're excited to have him.

"I remember, whether it was Devin Hester, he was a great kick returner, it wasn't like he was 4.2 but he had an ability to never lose speed as he cut," Cousins continued. "When you can keep your speed up as you're cutting, it's that much harder to bring you down."