Iowa State has used Ken Nwangwu for the Vikings so far, primarily as a kick returner – which is understandable since Nwangwu was one of the nation’s best as a college player and the Vikings had Dalwyn Cook. And Alexander Mattison has a solid running back pairing.
But that changed this week as Cook is out with a different shoulder. So, Nwangwu appears ready for its first real game as an NFL. Mike Zimmer said rookie this week will back up Mattison the way Matison charms Cook on a regular basis.
“(We) will try to find out the things he is doing really well and hopefully use him in those (situations),” the head coach said on Wednesday.
Anticipation is high, at least among teammates and coaches.
“I’m excited for him. I’m excited about his future,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins. “He has already shown everyone what he can do to return to football.”
Nwangwu sidelined the season due to an over-extended knee in the first preseason game and did not play in Baltimore until November 7. He ran once for nine yards and returned two kicks, one for 98 yards, for a touchdown in a 34–31 loss to the Ravens.
In a 34-26 loss to the 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., last Sunday, he returned a 99-yard kick for a touchdown. He too once ran for seven yards. It’s a small sample size, but it’s loaded.
“He’s an explosive athlete,” said Vikings special teams coach Ryan Ficken. “I mean, he can get to his top speed really quickly. He’s quick. He can make that one violent cut … and straighten up instantly without breaking his stride.”
Mattison has been a solid backup for two-plus seasons, and has been very good in two starts this season, 26 times for 112 yards in a 31-17 win over Seattle on September 26, and 25 times for 113 yards in 19 is running. 17 wins over Detroit on October 17th. But Nwangwu is one of the team’s fastest players and has demonstrated home run ability – not just from the backfield.
“What I guess is preparing in the same way,” Nwangwu said. “I don’t make decisions to put myself out there, so I just prepare for whatever is necessary to run back.”
Nwangwu started only three games in tailback for the Cyclones, one each in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and spent the last three seasons of his career behind Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Hall last season. Nwangwu hit a career-high 77 yards on nine carries in a 42-6 win over West Virginia last December, but was among the Big 12 leaders in kick returns all four of his seasons at Ames.
As a senior, his 28.9-yard average was fourth nationally with at least 10 returns, and first with 12. He was also the Big 12 Scholar Athlete of the Year.
With the Vikings, Nwangwu averages 41.3 yards on five returns, so it’s not like Minnesota won’t put him back in Detroit this week to back up Mattison.
“We’re attacking it like he’s our kickoff returner,” Ficken said. “At that stage (of the game), obviously, and he’s got a lot of value for this team. If he takes more offense, that’s great, but we see him as a kickoff returner,” he added. Unless our coach further says so.”
In four seasons with Iowa State, Nwangwu ran 143 times for 744 yards, a solid 5.2-yard average, and the Vikings saw enough to see what he could do as a running back.
“I think that’s the goal,” Zimmer said. “I think he wants to be involved in crime again.”
When asked this week if he thinks he has new legs because he’s never been featured, Nwangwu said, “I mean, I wouldn’t know, because I don’t have that many carries. Were.”