We’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled, and flat out led astray by the Memphis Tigers offensive attack over the past few seasons. Under head coach and offensive guru Mike Norvell, there were a lot of heavier personnel sets utilizing multiple backs and tight ends on the field at a time. In years past, Norvell used Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr. heavily in the offense, both receiving over 200 carries. But in 2019, redshirt freshman RB Kenneth Gainwell received more than double the carries as the next back.
Now, this needs to be addressed with a bit more context. Taylor was still around from the year prior, but only played in six games due to injury. From a touches-per-game standpoint, Gainwell averaged 16.5 touches while Taylor averaged 13. In the six games they played together, Gainwell averaged about two touches more per game than Taylor. A redshirt freshman with 10 career touches prior to 2019 out-touching an entrenched senior is impressive. But over the past two seasons, four Memphis Tigers backs have ended up in the NFL.
Recent Memphis Tigers drafted into the NFL
And some of those backs, like now Washington Football Team draft pick Antonio Gibson and Dallas Cowboys second-year player Tony Pollard, spent about as much time split out as a slot receiver as they did in the backfield. Those explosive players garnered just 320 touches in their college careers at Memphis together. Pollard would go on to be one of the most elusive backs in the NFL during his rookie season.
Henderson struggled in his first season with the Los Angeles Rams, averaging only 3.8 yards-per-carry while catching four passes, but he was drafted in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft after averaging over eight yards per carry in his final year for the Tigers. Needless to say, the plucky little program from the Western border of Tennessee has reaped the benefits of an embarrassment of riches at the position. And their best talent may be yet to come.
Who is Kenneth Gainwell?
Gainwell was a three-star athlete hailing from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He played quarterback for Yazoo County High School (county, not city) and led them to a 14-1 season and a state championship berth. He was a four-year letter winner who rushed for 4,730 yards and passed for 3,682 yards.
His reportedly ran a 4.68 as a recruit, which is definitely less than impressive for a then 185-pound running back. However, that could have easily been due to poor form, because his vertical jump of 36.8 inches is an impressive number and shows his natural explosion.
Gainwell’s ability as a runner
Vision and patience
He’s a really fun player in this area for a redshirt freshman playing running back for the first time ever. He displays good patience while still remaining decisive in the scrum to press the line and find secondary or tertiary running lanes when his original has closed. And in short-yardage situations he does a good job of simply lowering his pads and attempting to push the pile, avoiding any unnecessary cuteness that could get him wrangled behind the line of scrimmage.
When things go well upfront he’s decisive and doesn’t miss a clean read, which leads to consistently positive runs in Memphis’s offense. However, his vision at the second level still needs fine-tuning, as there are times where cutback lanes are present, yet he opts to stay on track and simply take what he can get. This is especially prevalent when he’s following a lead blocker, either an H-back or another RB. Expect that to be sharpened as he gets more reps at the position.
Burst, agility, and speed
His first and second level burst is quite amusing. He hits the hole with authority and can capture the edge on outside runs and when he bounces runs outside. His compact frame allows him to get to speed quickly and forces defenders to be disciplined in their run fits to not be outflanked.
His agility is a real weapon. Penn State’s Miles Sanders weighed in about 15 pounds heavier than Gainwell’s listed weight, but they move similarly when cutting to hit a hole or make somebody miss. Instead of the violence, one might see with a D’Andre Swift dead leg, Gainwell bounces fluidly from left to right, using jump cuts that gain good width without having to really put on the brakes too much.
Gainwell doesn’t appear to have the breakaway speed you’d assume of a sub-200 pound runner, but his long speed isn’t debilitating either. He won’t outrun most members of the secondary on his way to a 75-yard score, but he won’t be chased down by most linebackers.
Secondary running back attributes
This is his party piece. This is what is going to separate him from Taylor and Henderson in the long run, and with the rushing reps behind it, adds something on top of someone like Pollard or Gibson. He caught an astounding 51 passes for 610 yards throughout the season. Although Gainwell does a lot of work from the backfield, he also splits out to the slot and plays like a traditional receiver as well, which should add to his value. And he doesn’t just run quick hitches and catch screen passes either, he has a bit of a route tree and the Memphis offense will try to take advantage of man matchups whenever possible.
He really just isn’t tasked with this too often, but the young back never shies away from contact when he has the opportunity. There are a few reps of him launching into defensive linemen to chip them, which could lead to a penalty, but it shows his willingness to sacrifice his body. He’ll need to pack a few more pounds onto his frame to hold up against 1v1 blocking situations at the next level, but with his ability as a receiver, he shouldn’t be asked to pass protect often anyways.
2021 NFL Draft outlook
If we’re talking pure upside, it’s hard to make an argument for many others in this class. Gainwell is still new to the position and still has to grow into his grown man frame. If he’s able to sharpen his vision through reps, gains strength, and doesn’t lose much athleticism with the new weight, it’s hard to imagine another back goes before him should he declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. He might not be Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but he is in that mold of player, and the league covets that.