ASHBURN — When Ron Rivera watched tape of Antonio Gibson ahead of the NFL draft this past spring, the Washington coach saw the same speed, explosiveness and versatility that fascinated most scouts and caused the 22-year-old to shoot up draft boards.
But there was another prevailing thought that Rivera had as he pored over each one of Memphis’ games to evaluate Gibson: The Tigers weren’t using him enough.
“We always felt that he needed to get the ball more,” Rivera said.
Last year, Gibson was a jack of all trades for Memphis as he played wide receiver, running back and returned kicks. But on offense, he had only 71 touches in 14 games — a minuscule amount that equated to just five touches per outing.
It should come as no surprise, then, that six games through the regular season for Washington, Gibson has already surpassed his senior season total with 83. In fact, the third-rounder leads the team in that category with 64 rushing attempts and 19 catches. And even then, Rivera would like to see Gibson more involved. “This is a guy who we think can handle a little bit more of a load,” he said.
The expanded role marks a shift for Gibson — an opportunity that the running back has long hoped for. After all, Gibson is used to waiting. Before his breakout senior season at Memphis, Gibson rode the bench as a seldom-used wide receiver for the Tigers in 2018. Before that, he spent his first two years at East Central Community College in Mississippi. All those years, he hoped someone would notice him.
When Gibson takes the field Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, he’ll do so with the attention of the coaching staff, his teammates and the thousands of fans that have come to learn his name.
Gibson wants to show that he’s capable of “being that guy,” he said.
“Whatever (reps) I get, I just try to take advantage of it,” Gibson said.
This week, it’s possible that Gibson could be more involved in the passing game. Washington has only three healthy active wideouts on its 53-man roster and Gibson, a natural receiver, has already been featured out wide and in the slot for Washington. According to Pro Football Focus, Gibson has lined up at receiver for 16 of his 174 snaps.
But Gibson’s future is primarily at running back. Ken Karcher, Gibson’s coach at East Central, was among the first to predict that Gibson would be better suited at the position — telling him he should entertain a switch. He believed Gibson, with his tree trunk-like legs, had the speed and durability to handle the ball 20 to 30 times per game.
“When you saw his bottom half,” Karcher said, “that’s not a typical receiver’s bottom half. You could see that he had the legs to play running back.”
A funny thing happened when Karcher first approached Gibson with the idea of playing running back during his second season: He said Gibson was hesitant. “He bought in OK, but it was never something he was fired up about,” said Karcher, who noted it’s normal for young players to be resistant to a position change at first.
Gibson, though, said he started to warm up to the position once he broke free for his first touchdown — a 20-yard plus burst to the outside. It took off from there, he said, and eventually transferred to Memphis.
With the Tigers, Gibson’s role went back to being reduced. He reportedly struggled with the playbook and was buried on the depth chart — both at receiver and running back. He caught just six passes for 99 yards in 2018, leading Gibson’s friends and family to encourage him to transfer. “I had a lot of people in my ear,” he said.
Gibson chose to stick it out. He said his mother told him to do whatever he thought was best, and after talking it over with his position coach, Gibson was sold on staying. He said that ultimately, he felt like he was good enough to play and was determined to show his coaches that he could.
From there, Gibson’s role expanded. Memphis receivers coach John Simon advocated for Gibson to see snaps at kick returner and running back, Gibson said. Once he got them, Gibson broke out — averaging 15.2 yards per touch. He scored 12 touchdowns, eight through the air and four on the ground.
Gibson has yet to experience a similar type of breakout with Washington. He’s been close, however. His best outing came in Week 4 when he totaled more than 100 yards for the first time — against a top-five defense in the Baltimore Ravens, no less. That day, he had 82 yards receiving and another 46 yards rushing.
Still, Gibson is a work in progress. His impatience as a runner has caused him to miss holes, and Washington’s run game — which ranks dead last with 3.5 yards per carry — has lacked explosive plays. Gibson is averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt.
Gibson, though, is determined to not let this opportunity go to waste. The rookie said when he plays, he thinks about all the moments that he wasn’t on the field, all the situations he thought he could have helped.
“You hold it in for (so) long,” Gibson said. “When I finally get that opportunity, I feel like that was that right there.”