Cowboys TE Rico Gathers makes case for roster spot

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- If a ball is up for grabs, odds are Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers will grasp it.

When basketballs flung off the rim during his time at Baylor, Gathers snatched them effortlessly. He averaged 10.3 rebounds per game during his final two seasons as a forward for the Bears.

When footballs fly toward him on the field, he seizes them just as easily. The former basketball player caught his second touchdown in as many weeks In front of 62,888 spectators at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday.

"You put it up there, I'm going to definitely make a play on the ball to go get it," Gathers said after the Cowboys lost to the Rams, 13-10. "Nine-point-nine times out of 10, I'm going to come down with it."

So far, Gathers has stayed true to his word. He hauled in a 26-yard touchdown from quarterback Kellen Moore in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 3, and he added a 25-yard score last night from rookie quarterback Cooper Rush.

Gathers has taken what he learned from his time on the court and transferred it to the field. Whether it's a basketball or a football, he abides by the same rules: "When they throw it in there, you keep it up high. You spread your wings, and you just keep that ball tucked and tight."

Rush said Gathers is constantly learning. Though he is playing organized football for just the second year since junior high, Gathers has the size and talent to make an immediate impact. And he knows it.

"My confidence level is sky high," Gathers said. "With the mindset that I approach the game with, I'm not really surprised with what's happening."

His teammates aren't surprised, either.

"He's shown that he can make some big catches down in the red zone, Rush said. "With him, you just put the ball in the air. He's going to go get it. ... Being a basketball player and [with] that size, he can really go get it."

At 6-foot-6, Gathers towers over the defensive backs and linebackers who try to cover him. He said getting open and catching passes comes natural to him. The 290-pound pass catcher muscled through Cardinals safety Ironhead Gallon to secure last week's score, and he ran right by Rams linebacker Folarin Orimolade to find pay dirt again in L.A.

"He's improved a lot. He's getting better every week," linebacker Anthony Hitchens added. "And for a player, that's all you can ask for -- getting better every week. It's going to help the team, it's going to help the defense prepare better."

Given his background, Gathers' athleticism has never been called into question. It's the little things -- run blocking, special teams and overall understanding of the offense -- that will keep him on the field this fall, if he does them right. And he knows that, too.

"Just taking care of the run game is the biggest thing for me right now," Gathers said. "Once I'm able to do that, then everything will fall in place. ... I just got to get down to the basics and stuff with the run game. Once I'm able to take care of that, then that's when I'll become an elite tight end."

Gathers is the same size as a pair of the game's most recent elite tight ends -- Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. They both stand 6-foot-6-inches tall, too. Given that Gathers has never seen regular season playing time, he has a long way to go to reach their level, even if he stays true with the minutiae.

But Gathers has come a long way even without stepping onto the field in a game that counts. He's played in far more meaningful basketball games in the past two years than he has in football games, but here he is. He was selected in the sixth round of the 2016 draft and has stuck with the Cowboys practice squad long enough to take a shot at earning a spot on this year's 53-man roster. Whether Gathers is fighting for rebounds or tussling for touchdowns, tenacity and a drive for excellence never eludes him.

"I don't feel like I've proven anything, to be honest with you," Gathers said. "... I'm very hungry. For the most part, I play with an edge. I play with a chip on my shoulder each and every game -- even in practice and stuff like that. When I get out there, I'm always trying to make a point, make a statement."

If Gathers continues to make statements as the preseason progresses, there's a decent chance he'll find himself suiting up on Sunday's with an opportunity to make even more this fall.

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