Rico Gathers doesn’t want to spend another year on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad.
As he put it succinctly, “Nope. No can do, my friend.”
Well, Gathers took his first step toward achieving that goal in Thursday’s Hall of Fame game against the Arizona Cardinals. He showed just how far he has come in a year since the Cowboys used a sixth-round pick on the former Baylor basketball standout.
Gathers, 23, finished with three catches for 59 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown reception. Coach Jason Garrett estimated that Gathers played in “north of 60 snaps.”
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That’s almost quadruple the number of snaps Gathers played all of last preseason. Gathers had one catch for 8 yards in 16 snaps last preseason, and then spent the entire regular season on the practice squad.
But the Cowboys have high hopes for Gathers to develop into a reliable tight end, and he flashed signs of that for the first time in game action.
His touchdown catch came on a third-and-11 play when he lined up in the left slot, and got separation from Cardinals rookie safety Ironhead Gallon. Quarterback Kellen Moore saw Gathers and let him go make a play.
“Rico’s not bad,” Moore said. “He’s got a nice, big frame. Throw it up nice and high and let him go get it.”
Added Gathers: “When it’s up in the air, it’s my ball. That’s how I look at it. That’s how I was coached. That’s how I’ve always been since I played basketball and stuff with rebounds. So I just look at it pretty much the same way.”
Gathers celebrated his first professional touchdown in unique fashion, doing his version of the ‘Pick a pipe Peter Pan high stepper’ dance by Baton Rouge-based comedians Nick Joseph and Dan Rue.
Gathers had no interest in keeping the ball, though, considering it’s only a preseason game and he foresees several more scores in his future.
But the touchdown grab wasn’t the only highlight play for Gathers on the night.
Gathers displayed a decent catching radius when he went to the ground early in the third quarter to catch a pass from Cooper Rush. Gathers made a heady play by getting back on his feet quickly before a defender touched him and adding another 15 yards for a 17-yard gain.
“I made some pretty instinctive plays in this game, and that’s the stuff you can’t coach,” Gathers said. “You’ve just got to pick that stuff up.”
Gathers capped his night with a 16-yard catch late in the fourth quarter.
Gathers now must build on this game. The Hall of Fame game is viewed as relatively meaningless for many players, as wide receiver Brice Butler repeatedly called it “practice.”
But, for a guy such as Gathers, it is a significant step in his development. He broke down coverages and applied what he has learned in his one-plus years with the organization.
Gathers hadn’t played football since junior high, but he has the body to become a red-zone threat for the Cowboys. Other college basketball standouts have made similar transitions with great success, including Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham.
Gathers might join that list at some point.
“He’s still a young player, but tonight was a really good step in the right direction for him,” veteran tight end Jason Witten said. “He’s so big and strong and athletic. You could see that.”