Antonio Gibson is handling his special teams reps in an ‘admirable’ way

Gibson is handling special teams reps in an 'admirable' way originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Antonio Gibson’s been through a lot since last Saturday, and not much of it is all that cheery.

First, the Commanders running back fumbled in the preseason opener versus the Carolina Panthers, which was a mistake he could ill afford to commit. Ron Rivera then told the media postgame that he wasn’t pleased with Gibson’s running style in addition to the turnover.

Since then, Gibson’s training camp has taken a curious turn. He’s been mixing in with the starters on offense still, but he’s also been assigned some work with the second and, surprisingly, third-string units.

In addition, Gibson’s taken snaps on the punt coverage unit and, most recently, handled a couple of kick return opportunities.

Washington’s special teams coordinator, Nate Kaczor, offered this review of how Gibson is responding to his new assignment with Kaczor’s bunch on Thursday. 

“He’s approaching it as a professional,” Kaczor said. “He wants to be prepared and that’s admirable.”

Both Kaczor and Rivera wanted to emphasize that Gibson’s usage on specials this week isn’t a demotion or a sign that the club is abandoning him in favor of rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr.

Rivera explained Thursday that the change in Gibson’s duties is more so to get him ready in the event that he is in fact needed to contribute there.

“If they’ve gotten no reps at it and you’ve got to put them in there, you’ve kind of screwed yourself,” Rivera said.

“We only have so many padded opportunities left and he needs some work in the event that we need him on a phase or two in the regular season,” Kaczor said.

Now, whether they’re both really being truthful there or they’re actually looking to for a place to slot Gibson and potentially get him extra touches because Robinson Jr. has ascended to the top of the running back depth chart is currently unclear.

The timing of all this — Gibson wasn’t practicing with Kaczor’s group this summer before the fumble, after all — suggests that the staff isn’t just being overly-cautious and gearing up for an emergency scenario. Instead, this all could be the beginning of a new role for Gibson.

And when it comes to that prospect — and specifically the kick-returning piece — Kaczor can’t help but perk up a bit.

“Social media has had some of his returns from Memphis out there recently,” Kaczor said. “What guys did in college never leaves my mind.”

In 2019, Gibson logged 23 kick returns at school for 645 yards and the above touchdown. His yards-per-return average was a juicy 28.0. Demotion or not, the possibility of Gibson assuming that gig for Washington is a tantalizing one, especially after Rivera criticized that position’s performance against Carolina.

When Kaczor is leading his guys through various drills at camp, he enjoys being involved. On mock returns, that means he trails the Commander with the ball as he sprints toward the oncoming tacklers. 

Doing that with Gibson felt different to Kaczor.

“While I was following Antonio, I couldn’t see as much because he’s big and he can run,” Kaczor said. “Antonio’s a big man. So those big returners that have speed, just like when they run the ball on offense, they’re harder to tackle.”

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The primary focus for Gibson is to limit his fumbling and be more confident and smarter with his cuts so he can keep emerging as an offensive asset for the franchise. In the backfield is where he’d be most impactful in 2022, even with Robinson Jr. and J.D. McKissic in the rotation.

However, if Gibson does eventually become a ball carrier for Kaczor, too — perhaps his audition for that specific job will continue on Saturday in Kansas City — there’s a chance that Washington benefits greatly from it. Whatever compelled him to be inserted there won’t matter if he produces.

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