Georgia Bulldogs eager to see what Arik Gilbert can do

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ATHENS – It will have been 637 days since Arik Gilbert last played in a football game if he gets in against Oregon on Sept. 3. That is why it’s with equal parts excitement and reservation that Georgia coach Kirby Smart discusses his expectations for the sophomore tight end this season.

ExploreGilbert gives Bulldogs another gem at tight end

Smart was asked about Gilbert’s progress after the Bulldogs’ final scrimmage of preseason camp this past Saturday. His words were encouraging, though his tone was decidedly cautious.

“Arik’s done a good job,” Smart began. “He’s been tough. He’s understood his assignments.”

After a brief breakdown of Gilbert’s spring and summer workloads in practice, Smart’s thoughts quickly shifted.

“I’m always more concerned with Arik’s well-being mentally than his well-being just on knowing assignments and what to do,” Smart said. “And that’s the most important thing, that he feels comfortable with our team and can help us.”

Smart’s reservation is understandable. Gilbert’s athletic prowess has never been in question. But keeping the 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end engaged in the relentless routine that is college football has proved a challenge.

Designated as the No. 1 tight end in the country as a senior at Marietta High School, Gilbert quit after eight games as a freshman starter at LSU in 2020. Where and when he might reemerge was an uncertainty and highly debated.

Six months later, Gilbert showed up at UGA. He enrolled in June of 2021. But after spending the summer working out with the Bulldogs, Gilbert wouldn’t last a week in preseason camp. He was gone again.

ExploreGilbert not with Bulldogs because of ‘personal issues’

“Arik’s dealing with some personal issues,” Smart said at the time. “We love him. We’re thinking about him. We’re trying to help him.”

Gilbert was not heard from publicly during the Bulldogs’ run to the national championship. But word quickly spread last January that he was re-enrolled at UGA and participating with the Bulldogs in offseason strength and conditioning.

Not only did Gilbert participate in spring practice, he was a mainstay at a position depleted by injury. Darnell Washington aggravated a foot injury playing pick-up basketball a week before practices began and would have to sit out the duration. Brock Bowers, the record-setting freshman, already was a scratch for spring ball while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Ryland Goede suffered a knee injury early on and also was sidelined.

That left junior Brett Seither, freshman enrollee Oscar Delp and Gilbert to take all the snaps. The trio made good on the opportunity and showed out in the G-Day spring game. Dividing 21 targets between them, Gilbert (3 for 48 yards) would record the longest catch (33 yards) on the day, while Delp (7 for 91) led the group in receptions.

ExploreGilbert stands out in G-Day game

In August, though, the workload has been distributed between six tight ends.

“We’ve been able to do more two-spot (in preseason practice),” Smart said. “So, that’s helped Darnell coming off the injury, Brock coming of the injury, Delp coming off a mid-year and then Arik, as well. They’re all getting a lot of reps.”

Expect that to get whittled down over the next 12 days. Coaches are in the process of determining the roster and rotations for each of the position groups. That’s going to be especially challenging for tight ends coach Todd Hartley.

Bowers and Washington certainly command playing time based on their production and previous game experience. Bowers set a Georgia tight end record with 56 catches for 842 yards and 13 touchdowns. And there just aren’t many human beings on the planet built like the 6-7½, 270-pound Washington.

But Gilbert brings some intriguing possibilities to the offense. His ability to flex outside and play receiver positions excites offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Bulldogs

“Well, Arik, a lot like Brock, is a unique talent,” Monken said. “Arik is little bit different in that he has a wide receiver background in route-running. He’s good with the ball in his hands after the catch, whereas Brock’s background is more of, ‘just get the ball in his hands,’ (an) H-Back, fullback, run-after-the-catch guy. That’s probably the difference.”

Keeping all the tight ends happy will be difficult, if not impossible. The sensibilities of Seither and Goede have to be considered as well.

Many of the tight ends will be utilized on special teams. That includes Gilbert.

“He has to be able to sustain,” Smart said of Gilbert. “He’s developing as a special-teams player also. That’s something he has not done as much before.”

Said Monken: “We do have good players there (at tight end). We do have to find a good way to get them on the field and use all of our talented players.”

For now, the goal for Gilbert is to just get him to the first game.