Shaun Alexander knows a good running back when he sees one. Alexander, after all, was a stellar back in his own right. A former league MVP and member of the NFL's All-2000s Team, Alexander's running helped the Seahawks advance to the franchise's first Super Bowl in 2005.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, Alexander had to wait until March before he was able to present the 2019 Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year from the Football Writers Association of America. He presented the award to Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell, who sat out the 2020 season due to the pandemic (he lost several family members to COVID-19). When asked about Gainwell, Alexander compared him to Le'Veon Bell, a two-time All-Pro who in his prime was lauded for his versatility along with his patient running style.
"It made sense for his situation," Alexander said of Gainwell's decision to opt out of the 2020 season, via Teresa M. Walker of the Associated Press. "This year was crazy for everybody. But to see that kind of passion and to see that kind of speed and see his size, which is a great size for a running back, especially in today's game, he's going to do really well."
Gainwell made the most of his 292 touches at Memphis. After redshirting in 2018, Gainwell rushed for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019 while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. He also caught 51 passes for 610 yards and three touchdowns while helping Memphis finish the season with a 12-2 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl. One of just three players in school history to amass 2,000 all-purpose yards in one season, Gainwell had a game for the ages midway through the 2019 season. Against Tulane, the 5-foot-11, 191-pound Gainwell had 18 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown while also catching nine passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
"He plays like he's going to try to dominate you in such a way that you actually just wish the game would end faster so that he can get off the gas pedal," Alexander said.
Like Bell (who is also 5-foot-11), Gainwell showcased the ability to make quick reads at the line of scrimmage. At Memphis, Gainwell routinely avoided would-be tacklers while being extremely hard to bring down from behind. Gainwell also showed a knack for adjusting to passes that were thrown behind him while also displaying very reliable hands. Like many running backs, Gainwell will have to show that he can produce in a pro-style offense, as many of his carries came off the shotgun formation.
Despite sitting out the 2020 season, Gainwell is CBS Sports' fifth-ranked running back in this year's draft, behind Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, Javonte Williams, and Michael Carter. He is the 94th best prospect, which means that he is currently projected to be drafted at either the end of the third round or at the start of the fourth round. Among the teams that will likely be interested in Gainwell are the Steelers, who are in the market to select a running back after letting James Conner sign with the Cardinals in free agency.
Regardless of where he is drafted, Gainwell said that he will cherish the moment when he is selected by an NFL team.
"That moment will be very, very special because it will show the young guys back in the county it's possible," said Gainwell, who grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi. "You can do it. You can do as much as you can, but you know that you can make it, you know so. It would be very important for me for the guys that's back there."