- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2021

ASHBURN | Antonio Gibson trotted out of the huddle and lined up out wide, back to the position most natural for him. The 23-year-old may be Washington’s starting running back now, but Gibson spent his time in high school and college as a wide receiver. 

So, in some ways, the next step in Gibson’s progression is just an extension of what he already knows. 

Entering Gibson’s second season, Washington’s coaching staff appears to be looking to get Gibson more involved in the passing game.

During OTAs and training camp, Gibson has regularly been split out, ran routes and hauled in passes. Last season, Gibson was targeted just 44 times — a fraction compared to running back J.D. McKissic’s 110.

But when Gibson was drafted last year, coach Ron Rivera compared the third-rounder to Christian McCaffrey and said they possessed much of the same skillset. Gibson, though, has a lot to show before he can be considered to be in the same class as McCaffrey, the difference in receiving production being the most obvious. 

Now, Washington is seeing if Gibson can be as dynamic.

“He’s handled it very well,” Rivera said. “It’s a little bit of a throwback to what he did in college and how they used different ideas and ways to get the ball into his hands.”

The one potential hurdle to Gibson’s ascension could be if the turf toe injury that sidelined him for a stretch in 2020 lingers into this year. In the spring, he admitted he was still feeling pain when he cut directions. Though on Monday, he said he was feeling better and added the toe was “fine.” 

Rivera insists Gibson is under no playing time restriction due to the injury, either. So far in camp, Gibson’s reps have been limited — though that could be mostly because Washington loves to cycle through its crowd of running backs from play to play.

During Monday’s practice, for instance, the team’s backs rarely got to take three reps in a row and were mostly contained to just one or two. The only time this seemed to differ is during the team’s last practice period when Gibson took a day-high four consecutive reps. 

As a rookie, there were still a lot of instances in which Gibson was involved in the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, he ran 182 receiving routes on 405 regular-season snaps — meaning coaches didn’t view him as just a one-dimensional runner.

But most of those routes came from the backfield, not in the slot or outside — where Washington seems to be using him more this year. In 2020, Gibson took only 15 snaps from the slot and 21 lined up outside, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Gibson said running routes is “pretty easy,” but is trying to fine-tune his game. He discussed he has to get better at understanding the situations on the field and knowing when to cut or press through a hole. 

Gibson’s track record for growth over the course of a season should keep Washington encouraged. Last year, eight of Gibson’s 11 rushing touchdowns came after the first six weeks.  In that span, his yards per carry jumped from 3.8 to 5.2. That even was with the two games that Gibson was forced to miss because of the toe injury.

Running backs coach Randy Jordan said this offseason that there’s now a “night and day” difference from when Gibson first started playing running back in the NFL.

Washington, of course, would still like Gibson’s running to progress. On Monday, Rivera noticed Gibson’s vision improving as the running back read the front and cut to the outside. There are still occasional mistakes — Rivera said Gibson got caught when trying to make the same move later on — but added he’s seen a “good glimpse” of his growth. 

Rivera said Washington’s coaches have started to brainstorm how they can further create mismatches for the offense when using Gibson. If Gibson continues to improve, Rivera said his opportunities will increase on third down and open up various personnel groupings like using multiple running backs at once. 

Gibson sounded up for the challenge. 

“It’s just a matter of details,” he said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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