EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Jerick McKinnon encountered greater anxiety with more than 60,000 empty blue seats turned toward him last year in Indianapolis than he had holding a microphone in front of 18,000 spectators earlier this month in St. Paul.
The reason, McKinnon recently said, wasn't for the unoccupied seats during the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, but because of the seats in Lucas Oil Stadium that were occupied. He knew competing in on-field timing and testing drills would be his best access to personnel and coaching staffs who were looking to add a running back.
McKinnon excelled in the moment. He ran the second fastest time (4.41 seconds) of any running back in the 40-yard dash (4.41 seconds), bench pressed 225 pounds 32 times (most by a RB) and had the second best vertical jump (40.5 inches) and broad jump (11 feet) among his position group. He also finished third in the three-cone drill (6.83 seconds) and fourth in the 20-yard shuttle (4.12 seconds) among RBs.
Less than three months later, Minnesota drafted McKinnon in the third round with the 96th overall pick. McKinnon again performed when opportunity presented. He rushed 113 times for 538 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and added 27 receptions for 135 yards in a season that was shortened by a back injury.
McKinnon has been rehabbing from surgery with Vikings trainers at Winter Park but was able to make the "Let's Play Hockey" call in front of Minnesota Wild fans on Feb. 7. He said towing the line at the 40 prompted more nervousness than taking the mic.
"Start line at the 40, but you've got to be tunnel vision because you've got every coach and general manager in the stands, you've got players on the field warming up, you've got the guy who is helping you at the start of the 40, so when you get down there, you've got to be tunnel vision," McKinnon said. "You've got to stay the line and block everything out and make sure your mind is right."
McKinnon followed his career at Georgia Southern, in which he started games at quarterback, running back, receiver and cornerback, by going to a training facility near Pensacola, Fla., to improve speed, power and explosiveness for the drills at the combine. Although Georgia Southern has a strong history in FCS and won at Florida during his career, McKinnon felt he had to prove something because he had played at a smaller school than other players.
"You've got that label on you already," McKinnon said. "The question is can you compete with the top tier guys from the top tier schools, and the combine is a great way for a guy from a smaller school to really put himself out there and put himself on team's boards, move up and stuff like that. Coming from a small school, you've got to have that mindset that you're at a disadvantage because of the school you went to, so you've got to do everything better than the next guy and then more."
McKinnon said the biggest surprise about the combine, where more than 300 top draft-eligible prospects have been invited this week to showcase their skills to scouts, came along in the time between the event and the NFL Draft when teams became more interested in him.
"I'd probably say I got a lot more than I expected after that, as far as the private workouts and all that stuff," McKinnon said. "It really just came alive. I was up for it, as always, but that was the biggest surprise, that whole deal after the combine."
The importance of the on-field timing and testing drills is debated. NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock said Monday that teams should use the drills to cross check the other information they are gathering. There is, however, something to be said about how a player trains for and performs on a specific day when they've had time to work toward a goal.
After the combine, McKinnon said he turned his focus toward football conditioning. He obviously didn't begin a football play in a sprinter's stance, but did apply a few things he learned while training.
"The technique of running, you know, small things they enforced in there, as far as the force you put into the ground and getting back over your running cycle as quick as you can," McKinnon said. "Stuff like that translates because running is what you do, so it's going to get you faster, but as far as the start and stuff like that, after the combine you really don't need it too much."
McKinnon said the rehab is going well, and the native of the Atlanta suburb, Marietta, said he enjoyed his first hockey game.
"It was a good experience. At first, I was a little nervous," McKinnon said. "I was like, 'Oh, man,' I didn't know the hockey game was going to be that packed, so, 'This is going to be kind of funny,' but it went good. I had a good time. The fans are real good with the Wild. It was my first one, but it won't be my last."