Marietta tight end Arik Gilbert (2) had 105 receptions for 1,860 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2019.
Photo: Jason Getz/For the AJC
Photo: Jason Getz/For the AJC

Marietta’s Arik Gilbert was Georgia’s top high school football player in 2019

It was a refreshing example of hype meeting reality.

Arik Gilbert began the 2019 high school football season as the No. 1-rated tight end prospect in the country, a top-10 recruit overall. His team, Marietta, also garnered top-10 national preseason rankings and started No. 1 in Georgia’s Class AAAAAAA, although the Blue Devils hadn’t won a state championship in 52 years.

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“Arik is as good as I’ve ever come across,” said Milton coach Adam Clack, whose Class AAAAAAA defending champion lost to Marietta 38-24 in the second round of the playoffs. “Matchup nightmare no matter where he is on the field. Catches everything. Can run away from you or over you. Not sure I’ve ever coached against a receiver that adequately compares to him. He’s a five-star only because they don’t give six stars.”

Clack called Gilbert one of the three best high school players he has faced at any position. The other two are Robert Nkemdiche of Grayson and Deshaun Watson of Gainesville. Both became first-round NFL draft picks, but neither was the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Gilbert became the first Georgia football player to win that award last month.

The list of reasons for Gilbert’s national reputation runs a mile long — literally. Through the championship game, a 17-9 victory against Lowndes, Gilbert had 1,760 yards receiving, exactly one mile.

Marietta played the next week in a postseason game in Las Vegas, where Gilbert tacked on an additional 100 yards in a 53-14 victory against Eastside Catholic of Seattle. Gilbert’s finally tally was 105 receptions for 1,860 yards and 15 touchdowns. The yardage ranks No. 2 in state history and No. 1 all-time in the highest classification.

Camden County coach Bob Sphire, whose team lost to Marietta 41-13 in the first round, compared Gilbert with former NFL tight end Kellen Winslow Sr., who starred with the San Diego Chargers in the 1980s. Gilbert’s size — 6 feet, 5 inches, 250 pounds — already matches that of the Pro Football Hall of Famer in Winslow’s playing days.

“Arik is so dominant because he not only has great ball skills to go with incredible size, but he also has sneaky speed to go with great footwork and athleticism,” Sphire said. “He is smooth after the catch with really nimble feet.”

Sphire said today’s advanced passing offenses, which Sphire pioneered in Georgia as a head coach at North Gwinnett, make Gilbert even more dangerous than he might have been a generation ago.

“He is a load for defensive backs to tackle on all the ways they get him the ball on screens,” Sphire said. “Then he can go downfield and use his size and ball skills to make plays over smaller defensive backs.”

Marietta also employed Gilbert on defense as a pass-rusher on long-yardage situations. He posted 6.5 sacks, including two in the semifinals against Parkview.

Gilbert never had a bad game this season and proved most dangerous when the stakes were high. He opened the season with nine receptions for 205 yards against Rome in the Corky Kell Classic. He had six receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown against St. Joseph’s Prep, a nationally ranked team out of Philadelphia.

In five playoff games, Gilbert averaged 8.2 receptions for 130.6 yards. That included an 11-catch, 146-yard game in the Class AAAAAAA championship game. The state title was Marietta’s first since 1967.

“He’s deserving of every accolade that he achieved,” Marietta coach Richard Morgan said. “And I think his best football is ahead. He’ll continue to grow bigger, faster and stronger, and his potential is probably limitless.”

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