Kene Nwangwu has made a big impact for Vikings
Rookie from Iowa State has 2 kick returns for touchdowns in just 5 games
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Minnesota Vikings rookie Kene Nwangwu became the first NFL player since 2015 to score on two kickoff returns in a season when he raced 99 yards to narrow the 49ers’ lead to 31-26 midway through the third quarter Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
The Iowa State alum is the fastest player since 1970 to score two touchdowns on kickoffs, according to the Vikings, accomplishing the feat in five games. He has scored on two of eight kickoff returns this season. Through Sunday’s afternoon games, only four other NFL players have returned kickoffs for touchdowns this season.
“He’s a dynamic player. He’s fast, got that vision, he’s been doing great. In practice. He’s been the same way, just exploding every single time he touches the ball,” Minnesota wide receiver Justin Jefferson said. “He’s a dynamic back and we’re definitely glad that we have him.”
Former Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was the last NFL player with two kickoff returns a season (2015). Nwangwu joins Patterson and Percy Harvin as the only Vikings players with multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns in a season. It took Patterson (2013) and Harvin (2009) seven games to return two kickoffs as rookies, and each earned Associated Press All-Pro accolades.
With starting running back Dalvin Cook lost late in the third quarter to a shoulder injury, Nwangwu could see more time in the backfield behind Alexander Mattison. Nwangwu gained seven yards on his lone carry Sunday, his second of the season. Coach Mike Zimmer said Cook will have an MRI exam on Monday.
Nwangwu rushed for 744 yards, and made one kickoff return as a freshman, in four seasons at Iowa State.
“I think there’s a chance that he may end up getting some more playing time,” Zimmer said. “He’s still a young guy, and we brought him in as a kickoff returner and a backup running back, but he’s done a nice job on a couple of these situations for returning the ball.”
Minnesota entered the game ranked 11th in rushing, averaging 119.2 yards per game. On Sunday, they were held to 67 yards on 18 carries. Cook had rushed for 39 yards when he left the game. Minnesota had just one run of more than 10 yards, a 30-yard run by Cook.
The Vikings next visit Detroit, which ranks 28th in run defense, allowing 133.9 yards per game. Cook missed the Vikings’ 19-17 win over Detroit on Oct. 10, when Mattison rushed for a career-high 113 yards.
On his touchdown Sunday, Nwangwu raced through the heart of the kickoff coverage, picking up key blocks from Mattison and C.J. Ham. He ran through an arm tackle from safety Jaquiski Tartt and juked kicker Mitch Wishnowsky before streaking untouched the final 65 yards.
His first kickoff return, a 98-yarder to open the second half against Baltimore on Nov. 7, put Minnesota up 14 points in an eventual overtime loss. On Sunday, the 49ers responded with a field goal to go ahead 34-26, the game’s final score.
For the season, Nwangwu ranks first in the NFL among players with five or more returns averaging 41.3 yards