• Joe Broback

Should Kenneth Gainwell return to Memphis or go to the NFL?

It's a question that's been on everyone's mind since the offseason: what will Memphis Tigers running back Kenneth Gainwell do after opting out of the 2020 season? A future in the NFL is a likely option, but so is a return. The big debate will be what makes more sense for him, and right now both sides have concerns.

Gainwell's versatility is a rare trait that we haven't seen. At least, not at the level he plays. He's a reliable runner inside and out, but it's his pass catching that really turns heads. Normally, running backs aren't big contributors in the passing game because they don't have the best hands. Gainwell not only is a threat on screens and quick passes, but the Tigers could use him out wide as a wide receiver as well. He can run routes like a receiver, and has great athleticism to make difficult catches. You simply don't see that in running backs anymore. Whatever he decides, the team he chooses is getting one of the most dangerous weapons we've seen.

The reason I bring this topic up is from Memphis' latest performances. The transition under new head coach Ryan Silverfield hasn't been a smooth one. Sure, the Tigers only have two losses in their eight games, but they're five points away from being 3-5. Close wins one season typically go the other way the next, and there are signs recently that raise concerns about the direction of the program. Opt outs, personal leaves of absence, and transfers continue to rise for the Memphis program, including Gainwell's brother recently. Star receiver Damonte Coxie also opted out midseason to focus on the NFL Draft, but it felt like there was more going on with how the process of that announcement went.

After winning the 2019 AAC Championship, the Tigers haven't looked like the defending champs. Memphis' six wins this year have come against teams with a combined record of 20-33, with only two of them (UCF at 6-3 and Stephen F. Austin at 6-4) posting winning records so far. The Tigers two losses came against teams with a combined 15-3 record. It seems like their most recent loss to Cincinnati (a 49-10 beatdown) has put this team in a funk. Before their first half struggles against the Lumberjacks, the Tigers needed a last second comeback to beat USF. This week, they struggled to put up 10 points on Navy in a 10-7 win. If I'm Gainwell, I'd think about heading elsewhere.

Now, the NFL isn't exactly the favorite for Gainwell's future either. The league is running into some issues with COVID, the main reason Gainwell opted out this season, and it seems like there isn't a definitive plan on how to handle these situations. The virus isn't going away either, so that might be reason enough for Gainwell to wait another year before entering the draft. That means he could either transfer or just sit out. Sitting out would most likely hurt his draft stock, so there's the potential to transfer and play at another school too.

The obvious is Florida State where his former head coach Mike Norvell coaches. Norvell and the Seminoles would happily accept Gainwell's skillset for an offense that has struggled this season. Ole Miss offered him out of high school as well, but it seems unlikely that he'd go there with Jerrion Ealy on the roster. Gainwell's options are much more diverse now than they were out of high school given his success, so he could have his pick of any school if he decides to transfer.

I don't know exactly what's going on with Memphis right now. They're a 6-2 team, but it feels like that rate of success isn't sustainable and the writing is on the wall for what the future holds. Gainwell's decision to opt out was virus related, and the next one he makes has to be a business decision. There's a lot of uncertainty with the Memphis roster on top of more depth at the running back position. It's looking more and more like his best decision is to transfer or go pro as long as he feels comfortable with protocols.