Memphis may seem like an unlikely running back factory.
But over the past three years, the Tigers have produced three running backs to NFL rosters. In 2019, both Darrell Henderson (Los Angeles Rams) and Tony Pollard (Dallas Cowboys) were drafted in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. Last year, Antonio Gibson, who ran for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 starts as a rookie, was taken in the third round by the Washington Football Team.
This year’s draftable running back from Memphis is Kenneth Gainwell, a prospect who would have probably been drafted a year ago had he been eligible.
Gainwell lauded the Memphis program, coached by Ryan Silverfield, for putting the team’s running backs in such a great position for the NFL.
“We’re a system that pumps out athletes, we’re a system that pumps out playmakers,” Gainwell said. “We’re a system that does multiple things with players that you can line them up in different positions and just give them their space and let them do what they do, what they’ve been doing all they, which is run the ball. So it’s just putting myself and those other guys in position to just be great. So that’s what this program is all about.”
Back when Gainwell and Gibson were teammates in 2019, Gainwell was the team’s top back on the roster. As teammates two seasons ago, Gainwell ran for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also caught 51 passes for 610 yards and three scores as well.
Gibson complemented Gainwell and was used more in the passing game, totaling 735 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, while accounting for 369 rushing yards and four scores. With Gibson having a solid rookie season in Washington, Gainwell said he compares well with his former teammate.
“I will say Antonio Gibson is kind of similar, our skill sets are kind of similar,” Gainwell said. “But I’m a guy that plays running back before I play receiver. So, just being that guy who can be in the backfield and have great eyes, great vision, great feet, great explosion, that will separate me from (the defender). Being strong, it’s easier to make those plays.”
If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Gainwell would have returned for his redshirt sophomore campaign. However, Gainwell’s family lost four members to the novel coronavirus, with Gainwell deciding he would rather play it safe and opt out for the 2020 season.
That was a tough call for Gainwell to make.
“I had family pass away from (COVID),” Gainwell said. “So I mean, it was kind of a difficult decision, you know, leaving the team that I loved dearly and just getting myself prepared and just being as safe and doing what I got to do to prepare for myself.”
With new coach Arthur Smith leading the Falcons, it’s apparent the franchise will look to rejuvenate its rushing attack. Whether it’s with a feature back, similar to how Smith used Derrick Henry when he was the offensive coordinator in Tennessee, or through a committee, the Falcons will look to improve its recent run of being a bottom-tier run unit in the NFL.
Gainwell said the Falcons have spoken to him during the pre-draft process.
The Falcons haven’t had a running back total 1,000 rushing yards in a single season since Devonta Freeman in 2016. Freeman was subsequently rewarded with a five-year, $41.25 million contract only to never achieve this same level of success again. After the Falcons released Freeman last offseason, they signed running back Todd Gurley to a one-year, $5.5 million deal. Gurley concluded the year with 678 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
With nine picks in this year’s NFL draft, it’s quite possible the Falcons take a running back. As of now, the Falcons’ running back room consists of Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison and Tony Brooks-James.
Gainwell believes his versatility makes him an ideal choice for any NFL franchise. Considering how apt he is as a runner, his ability to catch passes down the field makes him a unique weapon offensively.
It’s not just that he’s catching screens, slants and quick outs.
In the third quarter against Tulane in 2019, Gainwell ran straight down the field on the left side of the formation before contorting his body to catch a back shoulder throw. He then flipped his hips forward and run away from the defender covering him for a 68-yard gain.
Gainwell, living up to his last name, can produce yards both as a true receiver and downhill running back. These traits wrapped into one package are a luxury at the next level.
“My skill set is very, very different. I can play in between the tackle and I can play outside of the tackle,” Gainwell said. “I can also line up in the slot. So my position is very, very different from these other running backs in the draft. I’m just getting my body right, just being prepared. (NFL clubs) saw what I did playing good teams.”