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Cowboys TE Rico Gathers eager to log game experience in '18

OXNARD, Calif. -- It's difficult enough to play one sport at a collegiate or professional level. Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers is ramping up to play his second.

Gathers, who is entering his third season with the Cowboys, has yet to play in a regular season game. He'll be the first to tell you that he hasn't yet accomplished all of his goals in professional football.

"[Preseason's] been my only real game experience," Gathers said after a walkthrough Monday. "I haven't made it to the regular season yet, but looking forward to doing so this year."

The former Baylor basketball standout, who scored over 1,000 points and is the program's all-time leading rebounder, was drafted by the Cowboys in 2016 after an impressive pre-draft workout. Gathers hadn't played football since he was 13 years old.

In 2016, Gathers spent the season on Dallas' practice squad after being one of the final roster cuts in early September. Last summer, he appeared ready for a breakout campaign, recording seven catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the first two preseason games. Then, a concussion suffered in practice forced him to injured reserve/designated to return, but he didn't play for the entire season.

The 6-foot-6, 285-pound behemoth knows many are expecting him to be the same player he was in those first two preseason games.

"A lot of attention has been on me throughout this training camp," Gathers said. "And it's definitely going to be on me during these preseason games."

After Jason Witten announced his retirement in May, Gathers' development -- and health -- are essential for the Cowboys' playoff hopes. Witten, who ranks second all-time among tight ends in receptions and receiving yards, is a seminal figure in Cowboys Nation. Clearly the veteran saw something in Gathers before he retired, as he left a simple parting message that Rico still carries with him today.

Witten and Gathers were clearly in two vastly different stages of their careers last season, but the bond was still formed. For Gathers, though, the past two years have been more about relearning football rather than learning from one of the league's top tight ends. Switching from a basketball mindset to a football mindset is a seismic shift.

"I'm a smart football player, I have to learn the game," Gathers said. "For me, I always have to assess before I go into a play rather than a player who has done this their whole life. They basically go up there on the line and know where they got to be. I say to myself, well 'shoot, we got this, I got to do this.'"

Gathers isn't alone in his switch from college basketball to pro football. Some of the best tight ends in NFL history -- including Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham -- played basketball in college. There is a clear correlation between the two sports that benefits certain tight ends.

"I think his basketball instincts] help him," [Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "That's the strength of his game right now, the ability to run down the field and catch the football, particularly over his head and particularly in those situations where the play breaks down. He's a big body, an easy guy to throw it to. Just throw it high and firm and he'll go get it. He has very natural instincts going to get the ball with people around him."

His instincts will only get him so far. Gathers has mostly been seeing snaps with the third-team in training camp thus far, but has made some plays in recent practices that could dart him up the depth chart.

"He can practice six times a day and he still can't get enough work, and that's a good thing for him," Garrett said. "He embraces it and he wants all the work he can get. There's a lot of things for him to learn, he plays a challenging position. When you're a tight end you're an integral part of the passing game and an integral part of the running game. You've got to know protections, you've got to know run blocking. He's certainly a work in progress, but we all are. He's embracing his opportunities."

Gathers' first game opportunity in nearly 12 full months will come on Thursday night when the Cowboys travel up the California coast to face the 49ers at 10 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

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