Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski Photography
Luke Inman contributed video to this story.
There’s never been a doubt that Mike Boone could run the football.
Signed by the Vikings in undrafted free agency in 2018 following a marvelous pre-draft process where he posted a 42-inch vertical, 139-inch broad jump and 4.45 40-yard dash, the Cincinnati grad started turning heads immediately as he looked to solidify a backup spot while Dalvin Cook recovered from a torn ACL.
Sometimes it can be hard as a running back to stand out late in preseason games with third-string offensive lines and no robust passing games to scare defenses. Not for Boone. In his second preseason game as a rookie he ran for 91 yards on 13 carries against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Throughout his first preseason he produced splash plays with gains of 10, 13, 26 and 46 yards, earning a spot on the Vikings’ 53-man roster.
“I think Mike grew up pretty quick because he had all that experience and all those extra reps in OTAs and he’s taken advantage of those,” then-offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said at the time. “He’s a mature guy. He takes pride in his job. He’s very mature for a rookie, very mature for a rookie. Doesn’t say much, just comes out here and does his job.”
For anybody surprised by how naturally Boone ran the football when called into duty last Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers — 56 yards on 13 carries with two touchdowns — you may not have watched the second half of Vikings preseason games the last couple years.
Boone, wearing No. 44 back in 2018, was not only effective as a running back but also showed explosiveness in the screen game, where the Vikings have excelled this season. The former Bearcat often lined up as a wide receiver in college and caught 65 passes at Cincinnati. Boone has showcased his hands a handful of times in preseason games, like this 46-yard catch and run at Tennessee.
And this wheel route last fall versus Seattle.
The theme with Boone has been explosive plays. In seven of his eight preseason games, he’s delivered at least one touch that went 10 or more yards. In five of the eight, he’s gone 20 or more yards. His best run against the Chargers on Sunday was nullified by a holding call, a 15-yard scamper that featured an impressive juke of a linebacker.
Boone was limited to just 11 rushing attempts during the 2018 regular season, but look at Minnesota’s Week 6 game against Arizona, for instance, where he took his lone carry for 20 yards.
There weren’t many ball-carrying skills Boone didn’t possess in his rookie season, but pass-blocking was a greater challenge due to his smaller frame. With excellent blocker Latavius Murray on last year’s roster, Boone was often kept on the sideline, but the second-year back said he emphasized protection throughout his offseason and into the 2019 preseason.
“Watching those guys, you learn a lot pass-protection wise,” he said. “Pass pro and just the little things. Being there and correcting the small details.”
New offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was also singing Boone’s praises in August for the improvement he’d shown.
“He’s really worked hard out here, and I appreciate that from that kid,” Stefanski said. “From where he is this moment from back in the spring, the switch didn’t just turn. He’s worked at it. He’s spent some time with Coach [Kennedy] Polamalu, you see him out here in the practice field flying around, and he’s working hard on special teams. Just goes to show you that when you apply yourself and you’re in the meeting room working real hard and out here working hard, good things are going to happen.”
In two preseasons, Boone touched the ball 103 times for 536 yards, a 5.2 yards per touch average that is on par with Alvin Kamara this season. For reference, Dalvin Cook is at 5.5.
Rookie back Alexander Mattison also gained favor with the coaching staff over the summer to claim the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, but with Mattison (ankle) and Cook (chest/shoulder) facing uncertain playing statuses, Boone may be a featured back in Minnesota’s battle with Green Bay on Monday.
“If another running back comes in the game I don’t feel like, ‘Oh man, we got a different running back,'” said right tackle Brian O’Neill. “We don’t care because we all know they’re going to do their job at a very high level and the best part of it is you know that they’re going to all be in their assigned spots whether it’s protection or different blocking scheme or running.”
It’s an opportunity that Boone has been pining for, according to head coach Mike Zimmer.
“We knew this kid was a really good runner from what he’s done in preseason and practice,” Zimmer said. “He’s kind of had a chip on his shoulder. He wants to get out there and prove his point that he can go out and run and be that type of back.”
Boone has always run with an edge that conflicts with his slighter frame. Each of the last two years he’s shown the ability to run through tackles, much like the other two Vikings backs Cook and Mattison.
Boone showed his power against the Chargers last Sunday with tough yards as well, not facing third-stringers like in the preseason. Zimmer’s first compliment of Boone on Sunday was that he ran “really hard.”
On Boone’s first career touchdown, he showed how well he can follow his blocks, which funneled him into the end zone on this eight-yard score. To be a running back in Gary Kubiak’s zone scheme, you have to know where your blockers are going.
A lot of the Vikings’ biggest runs this season have gone to the edge. Boone proved in the preseason he can reach the edge with a much ferocity as slashing between the tackles. Take a look at the two runs below against Buffalo and Seattle.
Back in the Vikings’ opening preseason game, Boone was the first to demonstrate the capability of Kubiak’s zone scheme with this 64-yard touchdown run that was almost perfectly blocked.
Bottom line, Boone is pretty good. His teammates have taken note, and fans who haven’t realized it yet should come around soon.
“I can’t say enough about Mike,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins. “You guys saw in the preseason. He just hasn’t got enough cracks at it because we have Dalvin Cook and Alex Mattison. The nature of the NFL is there is some really good football players who may not get as many opportunities as others and you have to make the most of the ones that you get. Mike has done that. People around the league have taken notice. He’s going to be a good back in this league for a long time if he stays at because he has all the ability.”