NFL Draft Running Back Rankings: No. 4 – Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Get to know Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell, who had a good reason for opting out in 2020, and what he'll bring to the table in the NFL.
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With the surprise re-signing of Pro Bowler Aaron Jones and the promise of A.J. Dillon, the Green Bay Packers are set atop the running back depth chart. However, given the violence of the position, a quality third option is practically a necessity.

Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell is our No. 4-ranked running back.

Memphis’ record-setting running back, Kenneth Gainwell, runs because his brother can’t.

Curtis Gainwell hoped to be a walk-on at Southern Mississippi. However, in a tragic weight room accident on Sept. 3, 2013, he suffered a major stroke. He endured four brain surgeries and his athletic career was over.

“Every time he steps out on the field or at practice, that’s why he says he practices and plays so hard,” his coach at Yazoo County (Miss.) High School, Robert Dobbs, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “He realizes everybody don’t always get that opportunity.”

At Yazoo County, Kenneth Gainwell was a dual-threat quarterback who passed for 3,682 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushed for 4,730 yards and 75 touchdowns in four seasons. A hot recruit, Gainwell picked Memphis because he liked his fit in coach Mike Norvell’s scheme. Running backs, including Darrell Henderson (Rams), Tony Pollard (Cowboys) and Patrick Taylor (Packers), have thrived in his system.

Gainwell would be the next.

With Taylor out with a foot injury sustained in the 2019 opener, Gainwell stepped into the lineup and led all FBS freshmen with 2,069 all-purpose yards. Overall, he ranked 12th in the nation with 1,459 rushing yards. He set a school record with six consecutive 100-yard rushing games. He added 51 receptions for 610 more yards, making him the best receiving threat in this year’s backfield class.

Gainwell’s rise to stardom was driven by a work ethic developed at home.

“We just did country stuff all day, every day like being outside all day. I learned how to be respectful and kind to everyone. I was just raised on doing what’s right,” he told the Daily Memphian. “I’ve been playing football since I was about 5, but I really thought it could take me a long way once I got to the seventh and eighth grade.”

One of the preseason favorites to win the 2020 Heisman Trophy, Gainwell opted out of the season and turned his attention to the NFL.

“I've had to arrive at the toughest decision of my life, which is to opt out of the 2020 College Football season," Gainwell posted on Twitter. "I love this game with all my heart and never thought I'd have to make this decision. But I just lost my 3rd family member to COVID-19 and after taking time to reflect I know it's time for me to look after my family.”

Measureables: 5-foot-10 3/4, 190 pounds.

Stats and accolades: In 2019, he was voted National Freshman of the Year by the Football Writers of America and earned some All-American honors with 1,459 rushing yards (6.3 average) and 51 receptions for 610 yards (12.0 average) and three more scores. In a game against Tulane, he became the first player since 1997 to post 200 receiving yards and 100 rushing yards in the same game. Despite the limited body of work, he ranks sixth in school history with seven 100-yard games.

NFL Draft Bible says: Gainwell boasts the type of all-around skill-set that can create a ton of mismatch potential. Extremely explosive in tight spaces, Gainwell is a blur once he breaks past the second level, putting defensive backs in some very tough situations in the open field. He is equally as adept as a pass-catcher and a runner. Gainwell is the type of player who can be manipulated in space to get the best out of him. For a smaller back, he has some absurd contact balance to work through traffic.

About This Series

Packer Central is introducing you to the top prospects, both on and off the field, in this year’s NFL Draft. The series is starting with the top five at each position, then will add additional players as the draft approaches, with a focus on positions of need.

RB1: Alabama’s Najee Harris

RB2: Clemson’s Travis Etienne

RB3: North Carolina’s Javonte Williams

RB4: Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell

RB5: North Carolina’s Michael Carter

QB1: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence

QB2: Ohio State’s Justin Fields

QB3: BYU’s Zach Wilson

QB4: North Dakota State’s Trey Lance

QB5: Alabama’s Mac Jones

Draft Order: All 259 selections

Team-by-team selections