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Kenneth Gainwell: College Football’s Most Underappreciated Player

Memphis is lucky to have him, and his versatility is something we haven’t seen in a long time.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl Classic-Memphis vs Penn State Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t even supposed to be his job. Kenneth Gainwell entered the 2019 season as a potential rotational player in the backfield. With Patrick Taylor returning, the Tigers offense needed someone to step in when he needed a breather. When Taylor battled injuries for most of the season, Gainwell emerged as the starter. He took off from there, elevating the Tigers offense to a new level not seen before him. Is Kenneth Gainwell the best running back in Memphis history? Not yet, but he’s well on his way.

DeAngelo Williams and Darrell Henderson are two of the most notable running backs to ever play for Memphis, but they’ll have elite company at this rate. Gainwell might do it a little differently, though. Williams and Henderson were more traditional runners who supplemented their stats with the occasional catch. Not only can Gainwell run the ball between the tackles, but he can also double as a receiver on a regular basis.

Gainwell caught 51 passes last year, second most on the team. As a running back. Normally when that happens, the offense is struggling, but Memphis did anything but that. His 610 yards receiving were also third on the team, and put him close to being in the Top 10 for receiving yards in a single season. For all players in school history.

That’s versatility we haven’t seen at Memphis ever. Matter of fact, it’s versatility that we haven’t seen anywhere in college football that often. Washington State’s Max Borghi is the only other player who comes to mind this year when identifying players like that.

So what’s next for Gainwell? Say he stays all four years, which isn’t common these days. If he keeps up his current production, he’d have 5,836 yards rushing for his career (2nd in school history), 52 rushing touchdowns (2nd), along with 2,440 yards receiving (3rd). Put it all together and he’d have 8,276 total career yards (3rd) and 64 total touchdowns (4th). Oh and those last two numbers include every players, even quarterbacks.

Gainwell’s skillset is a rare one. Running backs typically aren’t utilized as wide receivers, but Memphis adds depth to their pass catchers with that luxury. Make no mistake about it though, he can still run in between the tackles and make an impact. That’s the big difference. You don’t get trade-offs in Gainwell’s game. He can do it all, and that’s what makes him so dangerous. Even in an offense loaded with playmakers, he’s still the toughest to defense because of that versatility. He’s a defensive coordinator’s worse nightmare.

Kenneth Gainwell took Memphis’ offense to new heights in a year where he wasn’t even expected to start. He put up eye-popping numbers as a freshman, and he’ll only get better from here. Memphis returns as the defending conference champions, and everyone will want a piece of them. Fortunately for them, Gainwell’s back to fend off the competitors, and someday he’ll have his name in the record books. It’s just a question of how many records he’ll have by the end of his tenure.