Whether it’s been Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard, Patrick Taylor, Antonio Gibson, or Kenny Gainwell, the Memphis Tigers have exemplified success in recent years, producing a wealth of backfield talent.
Gainwell, an electrifying sophomore coming off a 1,459-yard rushing campaign, was named a preseason All-American, in addition to being listed on the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch lists. However, Gainwell decided to opt-out of the 2020 college football season merely days before the season opener, amid concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Far from household names, the Tigers’ backfield now features a host of promising players poised to take the college football world by storm and become the program’s next success story.
Memphis RB Kylan Watkins, a talented, albeit untested redshirt junior, was the favorite to stake claim to the No. 2 role behind Gainwell — but suddenly finds himself thrust into the spotlight.
The journey of Memphis RB Kylan Watkins
From the moment he was introduced to the game of football as a seven-year old, Kylan Watkins has played running back.
Aside from the occasional moonlighting at cornerback and linebacker throughout Pop Warner and middle school, there was little doubt that Watkins was bound for success on the offensive side.
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Watkins had his pick from three prestigious local high schools: White Station, Ridgeway, and White Haven.
While White Station and Ridgeway presented a more distinct path to playing time, Watkins decided on the latter.
“My dad told me that the coaches at White Haven were looking for me, because I played against the head coach’s son in middle school,” Watkins explained. “But, I went to a private school and they couldn’t find me. My dad, he’s the reason why I ended up there.”
However, Watkins’ success at White Haven wasn’t instantaneous. He spent his first couple seasons optimizing his limited opportunities and biding his time. It wasn’t until the second half of his high school career that Watkins began to gain traction among recruiting circles.
“I didn’t have college coaches contacting me until right after my junior season, like in the spring time,” Watkins recalled. “My first offer was in March, from Tennessee Tech.”
As a senior, Watkins spearheaded the White Haven offensive attack, propelling the Tigers to the TSSAA Class 6A state championship. He rushed for 1,984 yards and 31 touchdowns and caught 13 receptions for 343 yards and five touchdowns.
Although Watkins yielded 4,705 all-purpose yards over his final two seasons, his recruiting cycle was short-circuited by a setback.
“I actually took one visit, to UT Martin,” Watkins said. “I broke my wrist in the second-round playoff game, so I had to get surgery. I wasn’t able to take any other officials, so UT Martin was the only one I could take. My options were between Memphis and UT Martin.”
After patiently waiting for half of his high school career for his inevitable breakthrough, Watkins opted to attend UT Martin — where he would presumably factor into the offensive equation in the early goings.
First-year learning curve
Following a sensational finish to his high school career, Watkins appeared poised for college football stardom. However, like many first-year students in his position, he was issued the redshirt designation before the season.
Instead of re-establishing himself as an offensive weapon at the collegiate level, Watkins spent his Saturdays on the sideline after a week of preparing the first-team defense on scout team.
While his freshman campaign never materialized like he envisioned, Watkins grew exponentially as a young man, coming away with some valuable life lessons in his extended period away from home.
“Life choices,” Watkins said. “I was out there on my own, it was my first time away from home in a long time. I learned how to do a lot of things by myself. Just little things, like cooking, learning how to manage my money, and looking out for myself.”
Amidst his newfound idle time, Watkins became fascinated with his hometown team.
“I redshirted, so every time after UT Martin played, I would always go and watch Memphis play on TV,” Watkins said. “Just watching them on TV have fun — and watching in my hometown — it made me want to go.”
Fortunately, the interest between Watkins and Memphis was still mutual. After weighing his options, Watkins accepted a walk-on opportunity with the Tigers.
Becoming a Tiger
Initially buried behind Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor, Tony Pollard, and Kenny Gainwell on the depth chart, Watkins spent his second collegiate season in a familiar role: Miring in obscurity on scout team.
“I never looked at scout team as a bad thing,” Watkins said. “You being down there, maybe it’s not your time, but your number will always be called. I’d tell guys to go down to scout team and work on your craft and stay ready.
“I was behind Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard, and Patrick Taylor — they were there — so I knew I wasn’t going to play. But, I got to watch those guys, steal some of their moves, and try it on the starting defense. So that was pretty cool.”
Henderson and Pollard bolted for the professional ranks the following spring, effectively handing the backfield over to Taylor, Gainwell, Watkins, and Antonio Gibson in 2019.
“My running backs coach told me that Tony Pollard was probably going to enter the draft, so I knew from that point on that I was going to have to step up my game,” Watkins explained. “Try to gain more weight and work on my routes, stuff like that.”
Watkins’ offseason diligence not only assured him a prominent role on offense — it earned him a scholarship in the fall.
Appearing in 11 games, Watkins carried the ball 62 times for 325 yards and three touchdowns. The redshirt sophomore finished third on the team in carries.
Watkins’ signature performance came in an early-season tilt with South Alabama, where he carried the ball 11 times for 113 yards and reeled in an 18-yard touchdown.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t think I was going to have a game like that at all,” Watkins admitted. “Coach put me in a couple drives, the [offensive line] did their job, and I just made plays happen.”
Kylan Watkins’ 2020 outlook
With Taylor and Gibson graduating to the next level, the spotlight promptly shifted to Gainwell and Watkins.
The latter, who would have to stave off a host of ascending prospects to secure the No. 2 role in the fall, exhausted every option to ensure he was up to the task.
“I know when the pandemic first started, me and my roommates Calvin Austin and Ka’Dedrick Richardson, a lady drove by and asked us if we wanted a bench press,” Watkins recalled. “We were out in our front yard every day, lifting weights, doing bench press, doing different stuff. I think that really shaped us, personally, to get ready for the season.”
While Watkins was eyeing the primary backup role to Gainwell, one of college football’s premier running backs, news surfaced that the preseason All-American elected to opt out of the 2020 college football season.
Just like that, Watkins went from top reserve to de facto starter.
“It kind of caught me by surprise,” Watkins admitted. “I didn’t look at it as a bad thing; I just looked at it like, ‘Man, this is a good chance to showcase that Memphis really has a stable of backs.’”
Watkins, standing at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, doesn’t boast the prototypical size to suggest he can shoulder the lion’s share of the carries. However, with little tread on the tires and a unique running style limiting his exposure to big hits, Watkins is equipped to handle volume.
Watkins’ vision and ability to accelerate through the smallest creases makes him a threat to score on any given play, and his shiftiness and burst blends well with bruising sophomore Rodrigues Clark.
Though he effortlessly accumulated a career-high 14 carries for 52 yards in the opener against Arkansas State, Watkins admits that his new role has altered his approach.
“I spend way more time watching film and taking care of my body now,” Watkins said.