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Breaking Down RB/KR Kene Nwangwu

A closer look at the Vikings 4th round RB/KR/PR selection

The Vikings selected RB Kene Nwangwu (kuh-NAY new-WAHN-goo) with the 119th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft. Apparently he came highly recommended by Vikings RB coach Kennedy Polamalu, and also will likely compete for kick and punt return duties.

Nwangwu was ranked 293rd on The Athletic’s consensus big board, suggesting he should’ve gone undrafted, so the Vikings taking him early in the 4th round on Day 3 wasn’t a particularly good value from that standpoint.

But Nwangwu was also one of the fastest players in the draft, the most athletic RB, and was one of the top kick returners in college football. That combination can sometimes result in the player going higher than expected to a team looking for just such a player. And so it would seem was the case with the Vikings.


As mentioned, Nwangwu was the most athletic RB in the draft, and one of its fastest players, as reflected in his pro day results and relative athletic score (RAS):

Having a highly athletic RB with 4.3” speed returning kicks/punts could add the explosive element the Vikings return game has been missing for a number of years.

His size/speed combination will appeal not only as a running back and kick/punt returner, but also as a core special teamer.

College Grades and Stats

There’s not so much in terms of analytical stats and grades for a backup running back at Iowa State who’s main role was a kick returner, but there is a good story of his college experience worth reading. He was very well respected at Iowa State, despite his ancillary role, and seen as a team leader.

Nwangwu was used primarily as a kick returner during his career at Iowa State, and was a backup to NFL running back David Montgomery and later Breece Hall. He had a total of 92 kick returns over his 48 games with the Cyclones, averaging 26.8 yards per return, with ten going for 40+ yards. He ranks third all-time in kickoff return yards in the Big-12. In 2020, he ranked 7th nationally in kickoff return yard average, at 28.9.

As a running back, Nwangwu averaged just 3 carries a game for 5.2 yards each, so not a lot of snaps. He has some kick return-like rushing attempts, where he basically went untouched through the line and then off to the races with his 4.3” speed.

Pro Football Reference
Pro Football Reference

Scouting Reports

Height, weight and speed all work in his favor, but when the ball is in his hands, there just isn’t much about his running style that feels natural. Nwangwu has open-field speed to hit a crease and go, but he’s often indecisive with the ball in his hands, as he lacks a runner’s instincts and fails to anticipate run-lane development. Iowa State has had a lot of turnover at running backs coach during his time there, so consistency could bring more growth as a runner. His special teams talent, explosive traits and ability to protect the passer could help move him into draftable position on Day 3 as a RB4.


Elite testing numbers for a running back.

Rocked-up physique with desirable size.

Excellent worker with high-end intelligence.

Uses size and strength to create push into the pile.

Adequate open-field speed to hit the chunk play.

Finishes with pad drop to drive through the tackler.

Has no fumbles over his 146 career carries.

Talented kick-returner.

Size shows up in rare opportunities to pass protect.


One-speed runner.

Takes forever to gather and cut on wide stretch plays.

Dances up toward the line when trying to read the front.

Lacks instincts and vision to see a move ahead.

Inside runs are missing feel for run lanes.

Drops head and finishes when moves are still available.

Clunky, mechanical footwork when cutting.

Awkward as route-runner and rarely a third-down option.

- Lance Zierlein

“I love all the character makeup about him. He was great in our meetings. Very smart, hard-working and a team player.” — RBs coach for AFC team

A perfect zone-running scheme back, Kene Nwangwu is a guy that has plenty of speed to burn. He sat behind two talented running backs in the Iowa State offense, but Nwangwu is shifty, elusive, and can be a dynamic back behind of Dalvin Cook. - Nick Farabaugh, Pro Football Network

College Film

Bottom Line

There isn’t a lot to analyze about Nwangwu’s college career at Iowa State. He was one of the top kick returners in the country, but seldom carried the ball as a running back. He was the most athletic running back in the draft, and is now the fastest player on the Vikings’ roster.

He’ll compete with 5th round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette and others for the kick returner spot, and likely for the punt returner spot as well. He’s got a size and speed advantage over his competitors, but we’ll have to see if that translates into winning a returner spot(s).

He’ll also take the 4th RB spot, replacing Mike Boone.

I suspect the Vikings see more value and potential in Nwangwu than the league overall, with Vikings’ well-respected RB coach Kennedy Polamalu standing on the table for him. I’m sure new Vikings’ special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken sees a lot in Nwangwu’s skillset as well. He certainly has the athletic traits to be a dangerous weapon as a kick and punt returner, could also be a core special teamer and leader in that group, and potentially displace Ameer Abdullah at RB3 as well.


Will Kene Nwangwu win the kick returner job for the Vikings this season?

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