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How Eagles rookie Kenneth Gainwell backed up a week of trash talk with toughness and a touchdown vs. Jets

The running back out of Memphis has let his game do the talking and is emerging as an option in Nick Sirianni's offense.

Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell spikes the football after scoring a first quarter touchdown against the New York Jets in a preseason game on Friday, August 27, 2021 in East Rutherford, N.J.
Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell spikes the football after scoring a first quarter touchdown against the New York Jets in a preseason game on Friday, August 27, 2021 in East Rutherford, N.J.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Leading up to the Eagles’ preseason finale Friday evening, rookie running back Kenneth Gainwell had a loud week of joint practices with the Jets.

He was often feisty in between the whistles, typically having something to say after the play. Gainwell made sure the Jets heard him on game day, too, as the two teams played to a 31-31 tie.

After fellow running back Boston Scott scored on a 49-yard touchdown reception during the Eagles’ opening series, Gainwell took the torch in the backfield. On the ensuing series, Gainwell provided additional burst, picking up 32 yards on four rushes. He also caught a 15-yard pass from quarterback Joe Flacco and helped push the ball deeper into Jets territory.

Gainwell capped the Eagles’ second drive with a 5-yard rushing touchdown up the gut.

“I had to let out a little steam,” he said.

The Eagles selected Gainwell in the fifth round (150th overall) out of Memphis in April’s NFL draft. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound running back opted out of the 2020 college season due to COVID-19 concerns, but in two seasons at Memphis, he rushed for 1,550 yards and 13 touchdowns with 6.3 yards per carry. Gainwell emerged as a receiving threat with 57 catches for 662 yards and three touchdowns.

His pass-catching abilities wowed Philadelphia’s front office and scouts during the pre-draft process. He has been just as advertised throughout training camp.

“One thing that you really notice about him is he’s shifty and can make guys miss,” first-year head coach Nick Sirianni said. “He’s got great hands, can run routes, hit the hole, and make big runs. He is tough. He just shows his physical and mental toughness every day. Usually guys that are tough players, those are guys who [make me think], ‘I can’t go to the game without him.’

“It has really stuck out in the joint practices with how tough he is.”

Sirianni -- the team’s offensive play caller -- could get more creative in the regular season with his split-back looks. After all, Sirianni has admitted he has been more conservative with play calling in the preseason, which indicates he could be hiding more packages and looks featuring Gainwell and other offensive skill players.

Miles Sanders, who sat Friday, is the team’s No. 1 tailback, and he has been supplemented by Scott, Gainwell, and Jordan Howard. Gainwell, 22, needs to work on his blocking ability in order to stick out and earn more consistent reps. But his abilities to catch passes and make defenders miss should make Sirianni salivate about all of the possibilities.

“He was quiet when he first got here,” Sirianni said. “Now I see his personality coming out. He’s getting more comfortable. You see his personality coming out because he’s had some success.”

While the rookie tailback should tread carefully, the type of intensity that Gainwell offers should be welcomed to a franchise aspiring to re-cultivate a winning culture.

Asked to identify one player who’s going to have a big season, Gainwell answered himself.

“I’m going to bet on myself every chance I get,” he said.

» READ MORE: Eagles-Jets instant analysis: Offensive depth chart clarity, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside stock rising before cutdown day?

Added Flacco: “I think he’s starting to get his legs underneath him and feel confident about making decisions quickly and going and trusting his feel.”

The Eagles concluded the preseason with a record of 0-2-1. Sirianni doesn’t seem all that concerned with the record, since he has placed more emphasis on “winning” practices, especially the joint sessions the Eagles had with the Patriots and Jets. In Gainwell’s case, he has emerged as a weapon.

The Eagles open the regular season Sept. 12 at Atlanta.

“I just came to the preseason ready to work,” Gainwell said. “I came with my head down. Going into the regular season, I want to put it all out on the field. I’m being smart with the plays, just being ready when my name is called.”