Jerick McKinnon hasn't played a snap since the 2017 NFC Championship game, where the running back registered 126 yards from scrimmage on 21 touches as the Minnesota Vikings fell to the Philadelphia Eagles, 38-7.
Signed by the 49ers two months later, McKinnon was expected to become San Francisco's go-to running back as a multi-faceted contributor on offense. A torn ACL just ahead of the start of the 2018 season sidelined McKinnon in his would-be debut as San Francisco's lead back. Exactly a year later, his highly anticipated return was put on hiatus again, with a setback in his progress.
Third time's a charm for the running back as he makes his return to the 49ers offense. Since the start of camp, McKinnon appears to have put his injury behind him, as one of the early standouts during the 49ers full-team sessions. McKinnon looked quick and agile as he took several handoffs during 11-on-11 work. He's also flashed his route-running abilities, hauling in passes during team and 1-on-1 drills.
"Jet has looked phenomenal, you just would never guess going out there and watching the way he practices, how smooth he is, how he doesn't second-guess himself, how quickly he answers questions in meetings – all that kind of stuff, you would never guess that this guy hasn't been on the field for two years," Kyle Juszczyk said. "He just makes things look so natural, so smooth. There can only be positive things for him this year, I think he's going to have a really good year."
Even newcomer Trent Williams is eager to watch McKinnon's comeback story. The left tackle highlighted McKinnon as the player he's most anxious to watch, stating he can't fathom the running back not "being a breakout player."
Now that he's healthy, McKinnon figures to be a key piece of Kyle Shanahan's offense as a ball carrier and in the passing game. He aims to prove himself as the dynamic offensive cog the 49ers sought to add to their arsenal back in 2018.
"Jet's always been as hard of a worker as there is. He came in as prepared as anyone could be," Shanahan said. We've been through this twice with him. When he came back last year with it, trying to get him back, and he'd get out there and try to work through it. You could tell it just didn't heal right and then he had to go through all that stuff again. It's still the first day, the first step, but you can tell that it healed right. You can tell Jet's put that work in, and you feel all that he's gone through in the last two years. I feel he's finally in a position where he has a chance to have this comeback now and everyone's pulling for him."
McKinnon admitted to experiencing the mental and emotional challenges of being sidelined in back-to-back seasons. He leaned on his faith, loved ones, teammates and coaches to keep him uplifted in the process. Now with a shot at redemption, he'll have to practice discipline and stay within his limits for his first opportunity at a Week 1 debut with the 49ers.
"For me, it's about stacking the days," McKinnon said. "Learn as much as I can, knocking off that rust from not playing in two years and putting myself in those game-type situations in practice. We don't have a preseason, so every day I have to put myself in those extreme situations and environments in my head and make it feel like a game type situation. The first chance that I'm going to get coming back is going to be Game 1. It's going to be a real game. So, I have to start now."