Today’s NFL puts a premium on versatile playmakers who can line up all over the field and score every time they touch the ball.
If your favorite team is looking for that kind of weapon in the 2021 NFL Draft class, then former Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell needs to be on its radar.
Gainwell, a big-play, touchdown machine, spoke exclusively with The Draft Network about his NFL draft experience up to this point, why he’s the best running back in the draft, his overall style as a player, and what kind of impact he’ll make at the next level.
JM: You played some quarterback in high school. You were a three-year starter at the position. What was that like? Did it help you become a better running back?
KG: I was a quarterback that could run the ball (laughs). I was doing then what I do now. It allowed me to make a smooth transition to the running back position. The entire time I was playing as a quarterback in high school, I really felt like I was a running back anyway (laughs).
The transition to running back wasn’t tough at all.
JM: What a season you had in 2019. After hardly seeing the field in 2018, you exploded. You ran for more than 1,400 yards and had 13 rushing touchdowns. You also caught 51 balls for 610 yards while adding three receiving touchdowns. You averaged more than six yards per carry. Other than more opportunities, what else changed for you in 2019?
KG: I was more comfortable with the playbook. I really grew into my own as a player. I understood my assignments. I knew what my job was and I knew how to do it. I was ready to go when my number got called. I couldn’t ask for more opportunities than the ones I received in 2019. It was a perfect situation for me. I was ready for it.
JM: You took full advantage. You had your Pro Day recently. What was that like?
KG: I was training for my Pro Day since way back in November. I was ready for it. I was waiting for that moment. I couldn’t wait to showcase my abilities. I ran fast. Everybody thought I was gonna run slow (laughs). I did what I had to do. I checked some more boxes. I caught the ball well. I was smooth and efficient. I had laser focus out there. I basically just reiterated what everybody saw on film. I still have more work to do, though. I’m not done yet.
JM: I love that. When I turn the tape on, I see an incredibly elusive player with the ball in his hands. How did you develop that area of your game?
KG: I’m a smart player with the ball in my hands. I know how to finish on the field. I play the game with great vision. That’s what I do best. You have to develop that in practice. You have to use practice to become a better player. If you take that portion of football seriously, it pays off during the game. You have to be a student of the game. I’m a smart player when I step on that field. I’m a ballplayer at the end of the day.
JM: You make a huge impact in the passing game. How important is that versatility to the value of a running back in today’s game?
KG: I think it’s incredibly important. The bell cow, bruising type running back is going out of style nowadays. They want guys that can catch the ball at the next level now. I feel like my talents, everything that I do to make a positive impact on a game, that’s what’s in demand right now. I’m really just getting my feet wet.
JM: We saw it on film. Memphis is well known for deploying an offensive scheme that’s extremely friendly to play in. What can you tell me about the scheme, and how it prepared you for the next level?
KG: Our scheme is for playmakers only (laughs). You can’t play here if you’re not a playmaker. Our offense is set up to put playmakers in a position to be successful. We want everybody at Memphis to make it to the NFL. We’ve had guys like Tony Pollard, Anthony Miller, and Darrell Henderson in recent years. The offense is set up for guys like that to be able to make plays. We’ve had a bunch of playmakers here and we know how to showcase them. Memphis is built to shine a spotlight on your skills. We may not be a Power Five school, but everybody knows we make playmakers here.
JM: I love that. You said it. At the running back position alone, we’ve seen guys like Pollard, Henderson, and Antonio Gibson come through the program in recent years. In 2021, we have you. What is it about the program that allows Memphis to develop such exciting players at the running back position?
KG: We have a selfless attitude here. We want everybody to make it. We were always helping each other out in our running back room. We train each other. We teach one another. [Head] coach Mike Norvell has a great scheme. He brought something to the table that let us shine. Coach Norvell puts us in great positions to be successful. It’s a system that’s made for playmakers. We come out of the mud here. We call it the mud. Once you get here, you understand it. If you get the opportunity to play football down here, you can’t do anything but play hard and work your butt off.
JM: That’s a great way to put it. You run the ball with great burst. You make timely cuts. You have excellent vision with the ball in your hands as we both said earlier. What is it about your game that allows you to string all of this together in the open field so effortlessly?
KG: I’m extremely comfortable in my role when I step on that field. When I get the ball in my hands, I know what I have to do with it. I know where I have to go. I have to get north-south. You can get cut off quickly when you try to take it sideline-to-sideline every single play. I’m comfortable with the field of play. I know it well. I know what the defense is trying to do. I know how they’re trying to stop me. I’m comfortable with that.
JM: I’m curious which NFL players you admired growing up. Do you model your game after anybody in particular?
KG: I loved watching Michael Vick growing up. He’s the reason I wanted to play quarterback in high school. Other than that, I always watched the Philadelphia Eagles. I never really watched a player and admired them that way. I never tried to copy anybody or anything like that. I definitely loved watching Michael Vick, though.
JM: Didn’t we all. What’s your favorite part of playing the running back position?
KG: I love the physical aspect of it. I love running into somebody. I like getting hit. Does that sound weird? (laughs). I love being physical. That’s how I play the game. I like to run into people. I like running past defenders. I like to stiff-arm people. I just like to be physical. I’m a physical guy.
JM: It shows on tape. If you could take a handoff from any quarterback in the NFL, who would you choose and why?
KG: I’d probably have to go with my guy Jameis Winston. I love what he brings to the table as a QB. I love how he plays the game. He’s a gunslinger. He’s a smart player. He’s a good person. He’s a natural-born leader. I’d love to take a handoff from Jameis Winston.
JM: You’ve spent the last few months meeting with NFL teams on Zoom. What’s that process been like for you?
KG: The process is going well. I’m excited for what’s about to happen next. I’m ready, man. I’m ready to hear my name get called on draft weekend.
JM: What do you think is the best game you ever played in a Memphis jersey?
KG: I’d probably have to go with the Temple game. We played them in 2019. I had more than 100 rushing yards. I ran for a touchdown. I caught a bunch of passes, [eight catches for 98 yards]. I really displayed my versatile skill-set during that game.
JM: That was a big game for you. As you continue meeting with teams, I’m wondering if anybody has mentioned that we really only saw you play in 2019. What a tremendous year you had, but the sample size is smaller than most guys. How do you respond to that question?
KG: I’m just telling teams that you saw what I put on the field in 2019. I tried to showcase everything to the best of my ability during that season. I did everything I could to prove myself at the highest level. I did exactly what I had to do when my number got called.
JM: It’s tough to argue with that. I’ve really appreciated your time today. This conversation has showcased why you’re one of the most exciting and dynamic weapons available in the 2021 NFL Draft. In closing, what kind of impact is Kenneth Gainwell going to make at the next level?
KG: I’m gonna be a 1,000-yard rushing back and a 1,000-yard receiving back at the next level. I’m a guy that can score more than 20 touchdowns in a single season. I’m that guy.
Arik Gilbert Doesn’t Need Big Workload To Be A Top NFL Draft Pick
- Aug 22, 2022
2023 NFL Mock Draft: Marino 1.0
- Aug 22, 2022