Now 5-foot-9 and a stocky 209 pounds, Jerick McKinnon — an “absolute man” now, Shackelford said with emphasis — is an NFL player, and the Sprayberry High School football coach couldn’t be prouder.
“Everybody is super excited for him,” said Shackelford, who coached McKinnon from his sophomore season on. “He’s a kid with obvious ability and talent, but he’s gotten here because of his work ethic.”
After a banner four-year career at Georgia Southern, McKinnon was selected by the Minnesota Vikings on Friday in the third round of the NFL draft, 96th overall.
Few destinations could have prevented McKinnon with as much opportunity as Minnesota, where he’ll have the chance to see playing time right away as the primary backup to a six-time All-Pro in Adrian Peterson. Former Stanford star Toby Gerhart, who had served as Peterson’s understudy, signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent.
“Just the way (Peterson) plays the game, with passion, with physicality, he’s one of the best in the game,” McKinnon was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story. “I think he’s the best in the game, as a matter of fact. It’s definitely a dream come true to be able to come in and watch him and learn from a guy like that.”
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman marveled at McKinnon’s elusiveness and his open-field speed.
“He kind of gives us that dynamic third-down type back that will give us a little spark when he comes in,” Spielman said in the AP story.
Another team looking for help in its offensive backfield appeared to be targeting McKinnon as well, and it’s a team that would have kept him a lot closer to home.
As he was meeting with players at school during the week, Shackelford got a call on his cell phone from Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, who was on the coaching staff at Tennessee Tech when Shackelford and North Cobb’s Shane Queen were players.
Had the Vikings — who, Shackelford said, was not one of the teams who had pursued McKinnon leading up to draft day — not taken McKinnon at the tail end of Round 3, there stood a chance that the Falcons could have swooped on him with the third pick of Round 4. Instead, Atlanta chose Florida State running back Devonta Freeman.
Regardless, Shackelford feels McKinnon has found an NFL home that will suit him as a running back.
“I think it’s crystal clear why (the Vikings) picked him,” Shackelford said. “The longevity of a running back in the NFL is one of the shortest career spans. They have the best running back in the NFL (in Peterson), who is a tremendous workhorse. They have a tremendous commitment to the running game.”
Running back is just one of a multitude of roles McKinnon served at Georgia Southern, which initially recruited him as a quarterback.
It’s at quarterback where McKinnon first suited up with the Eagles as a true freshman, backing up Georgia Tech transfer Jaybo Shaw, but he often played alongside Shaw in the backfield.
McKinnon also saw time as a returner, and an occasional snap in the defensive secondary. He even intercepted two passes in a Football Championship Subdivision playoff game.
It was McKinnon’s athletic versatility that allowed him to prosper. In all, he rushed for 3,899 yards at Georgia Southern, the third-most in team history.
Notably, the final play of McKinnon’s college career was one of the biggest plays in Georgia Southern history.
The Eagles, ineligible for the FCS playoffs during its transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision, saw the 2013 season come to a close with a so-called “money game” at Florida. Georgia Southern was paid $550,000 to seemingly be a tuneup for the Gators ahead of their upcoming game with archrival Florida State.
Instead, Georgia Southern went toe to toe with Florida and ultimately won when McKinnon — in the role he will be called on as a pro — took the handoff and ran it 14 yards untouched for the go-ahead touchdown.
McKinnon carried the ball nine times for 125 yards. And while Georgia Southern did not complete a pass that day, it was clear the Eagles’ coaching staff had faith in their senior.
“He always wanted to please his coaches,” Shackelford said. “He always wanted to make them proud.”
Marietta Daily Journal sports editor John Bednarowski contributed to this report.