Mac Engel

Ex TCU coach has the goods on Rico’s transition to NFL tight end

In the Dallas Cowboys’ endless attempt to find either a replacement or adequate complement to Jason Witten, they have included an ex-Baylor basketball player who immediately knows the comparisons, which are ridiculous.

“Jimmy Graham. Tony Gonzalez. Antonio Gates,” Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers told me.

And yet none of those college basketball-players-turned-NFL-tight-ends are the ones Gathers watches.

“I compare myself to Kellen Winslow,” he said.

I compare myself to Brad Pitt.

Senior,” Gathers said.

An important distinction. Kellen Winslow the dad was considerably better than Kellen Winslow the son.

The last year of Winslow’s Hall of Fame career was 1987. Gathers was born in 1994. Exactly how does Gathers know about a player whose career ended before he was born?

“Highlights,” Gather says. “Highlights tell you everything.”

Winslow’s highlights say he was the best tight end in the history of the NFL, while Gathers’ highlights show he has a long way to go to make make a catch in an NFL regular season game.

After talking to a man who knows how the best-case of this transition can go — former TCU men’s basketball coach Jim Christian was Gates’ college coach — let’s just compare Gathers to Gathers. He’s not Graham, Gonzalez or Gates. And he’s not Kellen Winslow.

The former Baylor forward is the most intriguing player in camp for the Cowboys, but slow down. He’s going to make the team because the Cowboys love him, but he is far from being where any of those aforementioned players were when they began their NFL careers.

Before Christian came to TCU and spent four seasons as the Frogs’ head coach from 2008 to 2012, he was on the staff both as an assistant and head coach at Kent State in Ohio. Gates spent two seasons at Kent State, but never played for the Golden Flashes’ football team.

“He was supposed to play basketball as a junior and football as a senior,” said Christian, who is now the head coach at Boston College. “He was so good as a junior that he decided to stay with basketball. The bigger the moment, the better he played. You have to remember, as a junior he almost took us to the Final Four.”

The team Kent State defeated to reach the 2002 Elite Eight? The Pitt Panthers, where current TCU head coach Jamie Dixon was an assistant.

“Antonio had the skill set and the game, but at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds he did not have prototypical size,” Christian said. “He was a great athlete and he had incredible body control and hands. He was not overly fast, but he knew how to use his body. He just had this athletic feel and a great sports mind. He could pick things up really, really quickly.”

The Kent State strength coach had previously worked for the Detroit Lions and set up tryouts with NFL teams for Gates, who went undrafted but signed a free agent deal with the Chargers.

In Week 7 of Gates’ rookie NFL season (2003), the Chargers played in Cleveland. Christian went to see Gates and, wearing his Kent State sweatshirt, was standing on the sidelines during warmups. Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer stopped to introduce himself to Christian.

“Marty looked at me and said, ‘He’s going to be in the Pro Bowl next year,’ ” Christian said. “I immediately called my friends and told them to put Gates on their fantasy team.”

The next year, Gates was selected to the first of his eight Pro Bowls. Gates is still with the Chargers, and will likely join Winslow as Chargers tight ends to make Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now, Gates was supposed to play college football. He originally enrolled at Michigan State, but quickly learned that Spartans coach Nick Saban did not want him on a basketball court. Gates transferred and eventually landed at Kent State.

And the other two college basketball players turned NFL tight ends?

Tony Gonzalez was a two-sport athlete at Cal-Berkeley before he went on to a 17-year NFL career.

Current Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham was a four-year basketball player at the University of Miami, and played one year of football for the Hurricanes.

All three had far more experience playing football than Gathers, who before joining the Cowboys had last played in junior high.

Drafted in the sixth round last season, he spent his rookie season on the Cowboys’ practice squad and insists he never once thought of pursuing basketball in Europe.

Given how well he did in the Cowboys’ first preseason game in Canton, there is no way they can slide him through the waiver wire again to hide him on the practice squad. To keep him, they will have to carry four tight ends: Witten, Geoff Swaim, James Hanna and Gathers.

But watching him practice and play, there is an NFL tight end in his 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame. It’s a matter of how good. And when.

So don’t compare him to Gonzalez, Graham or Gates. And certainly not Winslow.

Just compare Rico Gathers to Rico Gathers.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram