Stephanie Storm

BEREA: Josh Cribbs remembers when his buddy Antonio Gates visited spring football practice when they were at Kent State in the early 2000s.

“Antonio came out to try to play, but they wouldn’t let him because he was the star player on the basketball team and they didn’t want to take any chances,” Cribbs said. “It was the same reason they wouldn’t let me play baseball, because I was the quarterback. But he came out in full gear and we wanted him.”

Cribbs looks back and realizes what appeared to be over­protectiveness at the time was for Gates’ benefit in the long run.

“It worked out for the best,” Cribbs said. “He’s still where he’s at — the top of the league, all-decade and Pro Bowl every year.”

Heading into Sunday’s game against the Browns, Gates, an eight-time Pro Bowler for the San Diego Chargers, is coming off his best game of the season. Gates caught six passes for 81 yards and scored his first two touchdowns in a loss to the Denver Broncos on Oct. 15. He has played in five of the Chargers’ six games and has 19 catches for 224 yards.

“He’s made a great comeback,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said of Gates. “He’s battled the last two years with the foot injuries and the ankle injury. It was hard for him playing without practicing. Not only that, but over the last two years, he’s probably missed five games each year. But his production stayed pretty high.”

In his 10-year career, Gates has 78 touchdowns and averages 13.1 yards per catch in 137 games. His 8,007-career receiving yards is fourth all-time among tight ends.

“He’s played unbelievable and been a Pro Bowler,” Turner said. “I would expect him to be a Hall of Fame player when he retires.”

Asked earlier in the week about the best way to defend Gates, Browns coach Pat Shurmur said it starts before the ball is even headed his way.

“I haven’t seen a lot of the teams that we’ve watched on tape defend him all that effectively,” Shurmur said. “I think it’s important that we get pressure on the passer, that we challenge all the throws. And whoever’s covering [Gates], whether it be a safety or a linebacker, or if he’s running through a zone, we’ve got to do a good job of trying to disrupt the throws.”

Teams that try to defend Gates one-on-one with a linebacker often get burned. That’s why the linebacker will often get help from a safety or cornerback.

“[Gates] is an ageless wonder in this league,” veteran Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “One thing that jumps out on film is he has extremely good hands. He doesn’t have the quickness that he used to when he was younger, but when you guard him you have to really study his releases off the line and his body language because he’s big enough to body you out once he sets his position on you.”

Jackson attributes Gates’ unique skills to his days playing basketball at Kent State. As a power forward, Gates helped lead the Golden Flashes to an NCAA Elite Eight run in 2002.

“He’s able to box you out and get good position catching the ball,” Jackson said. “There’s a lot of carryover from basketball to football in terms of running routes and body position. As he’s getting older, it’s a credit to how smart he is and how well he’s adjusted to the game, because nine times out of 10 the guys that are guarding him are much faster than him. He’s just found a way to run routes precisely and is able to use that body control to get open.”

Despite not having any previous experience going against the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Gates, Browns safety T.J. Ward understands what a challenge covering him will be, especially while spotting Gates 5 inches and 55 pounds.

“He’s one of the best tight ends to ever play, I feel,” Ward said. “He’s big, very athletic, runs well and catches very well. He’s a challenge to anyone who covers him.”

Stephanie Storm can be reached at sstorm@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.