Rico Gathers’ Twitter profile sums up his journey in one hashtag: #FromRebounds2Touchdowns.
The Dallas Cowboys sixth-round pick is attempting to become the latest college basketball player to blossom into an NFL tight end. Five months into his transition, it’s clear he’s still a work in progress. Gathers played just two plays in the Cowboys’ 28-24 loss to the Rams on Aug. 13, and head coach Jason Garrett told reporters the former Baylor basketball player wasn’t yet ready for third-down situations.
But there’s a difference between Gathers and many of the high-profile tight ends who’ve transitioned from hoops, NFL mainstays such as Antonio Gates (Kent State), Tony Gonzalez (Cal) and Jimmy Graham (Miami), and even lesser-known NFL contributors such as Arizona’s Daniel Fells.
All of them at least played high school football, if not some college football.
Gathers, though, is a true blank slate, who last played the sport in middle school.
It’s been eight years since then, and Gathers has grown into a 6-foot-6, 290-pound beast that averaged 11.2 points and nine rebounds as a senior power forward. Gathers helped the Bears to three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Sweet 16 run in 2014, though the last two seasons were cut short by surprise NCAA Tournament losses to Georgia State and Yale.
He was known for his big body and his brutish play, and he may have found the perfect place to develop his novice football skills in Dallas.
With Ezekiel Elliott in the fold, the Cowboys are expected to shift into a more run-oriented offense that, combined with the recent news that backup tight end James Hanna was planning to have knee surgery for a bone bruise that was not healing properly, could bode well for Gathers.
It’s his blocking potential that helped get him drafted, something his college head coach, Scott Drew, predicted in April on ESPN Central Texas radio.
“The blocking part alone, he could be drafted because there’s not a lot of tight ends that can block as well as he’s capable of,” Drew said. “The other way, obviously, is for his hands and receiving-wise. If you just throw it in the goal line — and there’s certain packages you could put him in for until he learns more of the nuances of football — right away, several scouts thought that you could get him on the field based on those.”
Gathers still has plenty to improve on, though.
It’s hard to even call it a speed-of-the-game adjustment; the last speed he remembers playing football at involved eating sliced orange wedges during halftime.
No, Gathers is spending his summer picking up the nuances of the game; the hand placement to curtail a defensive end using a swim technique, the drop-step to prevent a bum-rush. His receiving skills are evolving as well, according to reports out of Dallas camp. A Cowboys reporter posted video of a Dak Prescott-to-Gathers connection after the team’s Aug. 17 practice, and Gathers looked fluid. The post had more than 100 combined retweets and favorites.
More than likely, Gathers won’t end up a star like Gonzalez – an All-America selection after catching 44 passes for almost 700 yards as a junior who was the No. 13 pick in the 1997 draft – nor is he likely to be a fluke runner like Gates (who was en route to play both basketball and football at Michigan State before then-Spartans coach Nick Saban nixed the idea and Gates transferred elsewhere), or Jimmy Graham, who played four seasons of basketball for the Hurricanes but only one year of football.
A more realistic career path could be that of Kansas City’s Demetrius Harris, who played college basketball at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was signed by the Chiefs in 2013. He spent his first season on the practice squad, was bumped up to the roster in 2014 but was hampered by a broken foot, and finally emerged last season, catching seven passes for 74 yards before signing a 3-year, $6.3 million extension during the offseason.