Before the college football season could start, defending American Athletic Conference champion Memphis suffered a big loss.
As the Tigers prepare for their season opener Saturday night with visiting Arkansas State, sophomore running back Kenneth Gainwell decided Sunday to opt out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns.
It is personal for Gainwell. Four members of his family have been stricken with the virus. His uncle was buried over the weekend after dying from complications related to coronavirus.
"He decided he didn't want to take any chances with the coronavirus going on," said his father, Curtis Gainwell, Sr. to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "You don't want to go out there and get sick and bring it to us, his brother or his teammates."
Last year, Kenneth Gainwell rushed for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. For good measure, he caught 51 passes for 610 yards and three more scores. No other FBS player accomplished Gainwell's 1,000-500 double in 2019.
The good news for Memphis, which went 12-2 last year and lost 53-39 to Penn State in the Cotton Bowl, is that it has amassed enough depth to mask Gainwell's absence to a degree. It returns quarterback Brady White, who threw for 4,014 yards last year with 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The Tigers also welcome back senior receiver Damonte Coxie, who caught 76 passes for 1,276 yards and nine scores. They also return three offensive linemen, including mountainous left tackle Obinna Eze.
Arkansas State enters off an 8-5 season that saw it beat Florida International 34-26 to win the Camellia Bowl. It capped the Red Wolves' ninth straight bowl trip and gave them 75 wins in that span.
Arkansas State returns a total of 13 starters, including wide receiver Jonathan Adams. He's on the Biletnikoff Award watch list after grabbing 62 passes for 851 yards and five scores. Logan Bonner moves into the starting job at quarterback after throwing for 1,052 yards in four games while starter Layne Hatcher was injured.
It will be the first regular season game for Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield, who was elevated from offensive line coach before the bowl game after Mike Norvell departed for the opportunity to rebuild Florida State.
"This offseason has been unlike any other," Silverfield said. "Our guys are grateful for the opportunity to play a wonderful opponent. We need to control what we can control. We need to stay healthy and sound so we can get to Saturday night."
--Field Level Media