Kene Nwangwu started just three games in college and was ranked the 16th best running back prospect in the country by The Athletic.
Yet, the Minnesota Vikings saw value in the projected seventh-round pick, selecting him as the fifth running back off the board with the first of their three fourth-round picks at No. 119 overall.
Was it reach? The Athletic penned it as the second-biggest reach of the draft.
However, Nwangwu’s valuation was largely a running back, not his most impactful position — kick returner.
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Nwangwu: The Return Specialist
The Vikings are set with their top two running backs in Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison — both Day 2 picks by general manager Rick Spielman. Last season, third-string running back Mike Boone saw just 11 carries in 16 games. There’s little value in the No. 3 running back role in Minnesota.
However, it wasn’t Nwangwu’s prospects as a running back that created intrigue for him in the draft. His eye-opening athleticism and abilities in the return game garnered him a reputation as one of the draft’s hidden gems.
Nwangwu scored the second-highest relative athletic score of any running back since 2013 — trailing only Saquan Barkley. Standing 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Nwangwu ran a 4.31 40-time at his pro day and clocked an unofficial 4.29 40-time that same day.
The fastest running back in the 2021 NFL Draft class, Nwangwu used his speed to become one of the best kick returners in college football. He finished as Iowa State’s all-time leading kick returner, averaging 26.8 yards per runback in his career.
“Actually, my fastest was a 4.25 in training. I went to Nashville to train at Boost Performance, and the hand timing got me at a 4.25,” Nwangwu said, via Vikings.com. “The speed part of my game, I think it’s just setting it up. I’m still working on that, being able to set up blocks with your speed, too. So like tempo-ing it down and being able to accelerate when you have the ability to.”
Nwangwu showed a knack for making big plays in crucial moments throughout his career. The biggest: an 80-yard kickoff return moments after Oklahoma State took the lead over the Cyclones. The return set up a tying score and led to a 37-30 Iowa State victory — the first time the Cyclones beat the Sooners at home in 60 years.
Nwangwu suffered an Achillies injury as a freshman that took him out of competition for the role as the starting running back. David Montgomery, now the Chicago Bears starting running back, noticed Ngwangwu came back faster and stronger from injury. However, Iowa State stuck with Montgomery as the starter before All-American Breece Hall took the starting reigns.
There’s little tread on Nwangwu’s tires as he took just 143 carries for 774 yards in college. The son of Nigerian immigrants, he’s maintained a mentality of constant improvement, regardless of his role on his team.
“When you have a grateful and thankful attitude,” Nwangwu told Dunne. “It’s not like you get frustrated because you’re not doing something. It’s like, ‘Dang. What do I need to do better to get to where I want to be?’ ”
Nwangwu is likely to compete as a kick returner with fifth-rounder Iowa Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa), 2020 fifth-round pick K.J. Osborn (Miami) and running back Ameer Abdullah.
Vikings Special Teams Could See Biggest Turnaround
Minnesota’s offensive line will see a rehaul with first-round pick Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech) and third-rounder Wyatt Davis (Ohio State). However, the biggest area the Vikings could improve was special teams this offseason.
Minnesota parted ways with special teams coordinator Marwaan Malouf after the unit produced one of its worst performances in recent memory.
The Vikings special teams unit ranked 31st last season. Minnesota also finished with the second-worst starting field position of any team — an area that could see improvement with a better return game.
Spending valuable draft capital on a return specialist shows Minnesota has made remedying special teams a point of emphasis this offseason.
And Nwangwu could be the player to make the biggest impact in turning around the unit in 2021.
“Kene Nwangwu is the sleeper of the draft, the hidden gem bound to make the crucial play in the crucial moment. That’s what he did repeatedly at Iowa State and, with a creative coach, he’ll do it again in the pros. Because it’s also important to remember who exactly makes those plays on the game’s grandest stage — players nobody gave a damn about on draft weekend,” Dunne wrote.