Saturday’s news that Georgia receiver Arik Gilbert is away from the team dealing with what Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart called “personal issues” feels like the type of news item that will cause some rash reaction amid the dog days of preseason practice, when interest in college football is rising but substantive information is scant.
With restrictive media policies leaving little on-field action to dissect as the midway point of camp for most programs approaches and the Bulldogs firmly in the national spotlight, there will be a temptation by many to declare the absence of Gilbert — no matter how temporary or permanent — as a cause for recalibrating lofty projections for what Georgia can accomplish.
After all, the Bulldogs open against Clemson at a neutral site in Charlotte and would certainly benefit from having such a highly touted weapon available to gain a competitive edge in a game with massive implications. They will also be without veteran target George Pickens in that game as he recovers from a spring ACL tear.
But there are a couple of reasons why the uncertainty surrounding Gilbert shouldn’t cause fans to rush for a cashout on their UGA bets for the Clemson game.
While the former five-star prospect from the 2020 class enjoyed a successful freshman season at LSU with 35 catches in eight games for the Tigers and should absolutely factor into UGA’s offensive plan if and when he is back with the team, he’s also changing positions to play wide receiver and learning a new offense. For a player who was not on campus for spring practice, those realities suggested his learning curve was likely just beginning within Georgia’s scheme.
Considered a tight end out of high school, Gilbert lined up out wide just 6.5% of the time for LSU last season while playing the majority of his snaps out of the inline position typically associated with tight ends. Though he played a decent amount in the slot last year, it’s clear the plan is for Gilbert to adopt a role far more dynamic and versatile than the one he played last season.
For a Georgia offensive staff that has plenty of other weapons at its disposal, the move to wide receiver from tight end for Gilbert already felt like more of a long-term project meant to facilitate College Football Playoff success than one designed to be clicking on all cylinders on Sept. 2. His current situation merely confirms that reality, though it certainly won’t permit Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables to get any more sleep as he develops his game plan for defending the Bulldogs.
Even before this recent absence, it seemed unlikely that Gilbert was going to play 50-plus snaps in a dynamic new role right out of the gate. Yes, offensive coordinator Todd Monken referred to Gilbert as a “special talent” in a recent meeting with media, but he was also effusive in his praise for the rest of the receiver unit.
The Bulldogs return key receivers Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson, and as Palmer Thombs of Dawgs247 pointed out recently, they have 14 of 17 players who caught a pass last season returning. That’s an enviable level of depth and a fact that was true before Gilbert arrived on campus.
As for targets with size like Gilbert, try 6-foot-7 tight ends John FitzPatrick and Darnell Washington. While neither packs the explosive speed of Gilbert, both are capable of creating mismatches with their size similarly to Gilbert.
The other factor with the Gilbert uncertainty that should give Georgia fans some level of comfort is the program’s reputation as one well-suited to support its members off the field. Quarterback JT Daniels recently credited sports psychologist Drew Brannon within the program for helping him transition into the program from Southern Cal while he dealt with rehabilitation from an ACL injury suffered at USC.
“He helped me a lot with my mental space, coach Smart, too,” Daniels told ESPN’s Marty & McGee. “A lot of people in this place really changed my life around for me to the point I was able to go in and really take advantage of an opportunity I was given.”
The specifics of what Gilbert is dealing with are not known, but if he needs support from the program, Georgia seems like a solid place for him to be. After all, he credited its proximity with his hometown of Marietta, Georgia as one reason for why he chose UGA, telling Dawgs247 that “I believe it was a smart decision to come home.”
In the meantime, as we wait for a resolution with Gilbert’s status, now is not the time to sell Georgia stock. He was a late addition to the roster and already something of a bonus for a program poised for big things with or without a player with his undeniable promise.