“I wasn’t surprised at all,” senior wideout Kearis Jackson said of Gilbert’s performance. “Arik has been making plays all spring. When he first got in, he was way up in weight. But he’s probably lost about 30 or 40 pounds since then and he’s been out there making plays. That’s nothing new.”
It’s new to Georgia fans, though. Before Saturday, they’d never seen the 2019 Gatorade National Player of the Year from Marietta perform in a UGA uniform. Gilbert originally signed with LSU, where he earned freshman All-SEC honors while hauling in 35 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns in just eight games in 2020.
The Bulldogs had high hopes for Gilbert when he transferred to UGA before last season. But his Georgia career was sidetracked before it ever got started. Gilbert missed several practices the first week of preseason camp last August for what Smart called “personal issues.”
“We’re trying to help him,” Smart said at the time. “We hope to get him back soon.”
Georgia didn’t. Gilbert remained enrolled at UGA but did not practice with the team the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs won 14 of 15 games, including the College Football Playoff final over Alabama to become national champions.
When Gilbert decided to come to Georgia, it was with the idea of transitioning to wide receiver. With exceptional speed and body control at 240 pounds, the Bulldogs thought Gilbert could absorb some of the split end targets lost to George Pickens’ injury.
That didn’t end up being an issue. Adonai “A.D.” Mitchell (29 receptions, 426 yards, 4 TDs) flourished in at that spot, with Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (7-94) and others backing him up.
When Gilbert returned weighing than 300 pounds, Georgia told him he’d have to go back to tight end. That ended up being a blessing for both the Bulldogs and Gilbert as their top two tight ends, Brock Bowers (shoulder) and Darnell Washington (ankle), both missed spring practice with injuries, along with backup Ryland Goede (foot). That left Gilbert, Brett Seither and early-enrolled freshman Oscar Delp to get all the reps, which are considerable in coordinator Todd Monken’s offense.
Smart said Gilbert’s conditioning level has to continue to improve and he’d like to see him get back down to at least 240 pounds.
“What he’s been through and overcome is such a great story, but he’s not where he needs to be,” Smart said. “He’ll be the first to tell you he’s got to continue to grow -- to get in shape, to change his body -- to get an opportunity to help us. The two other guys we have coming back, it makes it a luxury of those guys being able to make it a special football team.”
Gilbert proved a matchup nightmare for Georgia’s defenders. He was targeted five times, had three catches for 49 yards and drew pass interference penalties on the other two. His 27-yard reception in the final minutes got the Black team into range for the game-winning field goal.
“First of all, he’s a freak,” quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “Second of all, he knows football. He knows space. I’m getting that trust with him, getting to know where he’s going to be on the field.”
Gilbert’s play on the Black squad overshadowed the good work done by Delp, who led the Red team with 91 yards on seven catches.
When Bowers and Washington return from their injuries this summer, few tight end meeting rooms in the country will be more talented than Georgia’s.
“The tight ends are the talk of the town, man,” said safety Christopher Smith, who gave up one of the scores to Gilbert Saturday. “They’re just a special group of players, with their size, the way they attack, how sure their hands are. I mean, it’s like something I haven’t seen before. They’re all athletic freaks. They’re going to help our team a tremendous amount.”
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