Rico Gathers looking to become more than a legend for the Cowboys

"Do I remember last year's rookie minicamp? A little bit, but honestly I feel like I'm a thousand times better than I was then," Rico Gathers said. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

FRISCO, Texas -- Rico Gathers has not played in an NFL game yet, but he is already something of a legend to Dallas Cowboys fans.

He played in just 16 preseason snaps a year ago as he tried to make the transition from Baylor power forward to Cowboys tight end, catching one pass for 8 yards. Yet the talk then was him becoming the next Jimmy Graham or another successful basketball player-turned-tight end.

Nobody saw him practice in public as he spent the year on the practice squad, but the whispers from those who did see him practice talked about him dominating the Cowboys' defense with Tony Romo running the scout team.

And there have been some social media missives from Gathers himself, like this one from the basketball court this week, running a pick-and-roll with Ezekiel Elliott and throwing down a monstrous dunk.

At 6-foot-7 and 281 pounds, imagine what he can do on a football field, the thinking goes, with that type of athleticism and power, now that he actually knows what to do.

“When you know what you’re doing and you’ve got your body in football shape, it’s amazing what you can do,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “That’s the biggest difference from where he was a year ago to now. We expect him to just improve daily and give us that big target in the passing game, and a really big guy that I think will be able to match up good in the run game. He’s what you look for in a tight end when it comes to the physical part. The mental part of it, the years he’s missed playing the game, that’s coming with the reps he’s getting.”

The Cowboys ask a lot of their tight ends. Besides the quarterback, they need to know more than anybody else because of their involvement in the running game and the passing game. Gathers had not played football since junior high when the Cowboys drafted him in the sixth round last spring. They had to teach him the most basic fundamentals.

“Do I remember last year’s rookie minicamp? A little bit, but honestly I feel like I’m a thousand times better than I was then, just mindset-wise,” Gathers said. “That was like a baby walking into a business office trying to run a business. It’s just not going to happen. Now I actually feel like I’m ready for everything they throw at me this year.”

He wasn’t ready last year. How could he be considering his time away from the game? But Jerry Jones dropped hints at what Gathers was able to do in practice. Running routes with a script laying out everything to do is far different than doing it in a game, but Gathers said Romo inspired confidence.

“Having a guy like Tony Romo in your corner, believing in you, seeing your potential and maximizing it during that time we had? That was another surreal moment, playing with No. 9, man,” Gathers said. “Then going back and watching some of the film and going back to some of the things he’d tell me, he’d keep me after practice and work on certain routes. I couldn’t ask for a better situation than having him work with me and just taking the time to mold me into somewhat of a basic tight end.”

Sitting next to Jason Witten, Gathers said he learned by osmosis.

“I’d be sitting next to him in our coaching sessions and I see him jotting down notes, OK, I’ve got to jot that down, too,” Gathers said.

If the Cowboys were reluctant to give Gathers much work last year, they aren’t this year. Witten is the unquestioned leader of the group, but Geoff Swaim and James Hanna, the top backups the past few years, will be held out until training camp as they recover from foot (Swaim) and knee (Hanna) injuries.

That means Gathers is the No. 2 tight end.

“When we go through our ‘fastball’ periods and I take the second tight end reps, that right there is a confidence builder because they didn’t let me do any of that last year,” Gathers said. “That was just like, ‘OK, watch.’ So now I’m actually getting in there and taking those reps and doing it and not making mistakes and showing that I’m confident in myself and I know what I’m doing. That gives me confidence each and every day. When that period comes right now, hey, I’m the No. 2 tight end, and I want it to stay that way.”