But even with that sliver of promise, further adding to Gilbert’s locomotive of hype, makes it all the more insane to put this level of expectations on a player who has yet to play a real game in a Georgia uniform.
It’s exactly what Smart spoke about when first asked about Gilbert at the start of spring practice.
“I think there is this perception, and it affects college football athletes more than anybody else because they’re younger, that the -- this recruiting stigma follows someone, and these expectations follow kids,” Smart said. I look across and follow guys that maybe we signed here or somewhere else and they carry this really heavy burden of expectation. We don’t place that burden on anybody. I think sometimes they put it on themselves. I think sometimes social media does it. Sometimes media in general does it.
‘’But for whatever reason, Arik is a guy that’s carried a lot of that burden with him in terms of expectation.”
Related: ‘Arik is a beast’: Teammates rave about Arik Gilbert after strong Georgia football spring performance
Gilbert was one of the best high school players coming out of the state of Georgia in recent memory. He was the No. 1 ranked player in the state for the 2020 cycle. Other players from Georgia in the 2020 recruiting cycle: Murphy, Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson, North Carolina wide receiver Josh Downs and Auburn running back Tank Bigsby.
LSU ended up winning Gilbert’s recruitment and he showed why he was such a highly-touted player, catching 35 passes in eight games for an LSU team that was average at best. But Gilbert then opted out of LSU’s season and hasn’t played since.
He entered the transfer portal and after initially committing to Florida, he ultimately ended up at Georgia. Gilbert was with the team as it started camp in August and the initial reviews were encouraging. But he then left the team for personal reasons and didn’t re-appear as a member of the team until January.
There’s a shroud of mystery that has followed Gilbert since arriving at Georgia, which perhaps only adds to the hype surrounding him. Because we’ve seen so little of him, he is still a real curiosity in terms of what he could be.
That curiosity, as Smart points out, isn’t just limited to Georgia fans. The very first question to Smart after G-Day was about Gilbert.
“I’m more proud of the practices he had leading up to today than today. Today was a little bit icing on the cake,” Smart said in praise of Gilbert.
But Gilbert still has a ways to go in terms of being a consistent contributor for Georgia. Consider Georgia didn’t have tight ends Brock Bowers or Darnell Washington this spring, as they were out due to injury. Both are more proven players who will command plenty of snaps and targets.
Freshman tight end Oscar Delp actually had a statically better day than Gilbert as well, catching seven passes for 91 yards. Georgia’s tight end room is so loaded that John FitzPatrick — who had just five catches last season and did not receive a combine invite — was drafted in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
“But he’s not where he needs to be, either. There were two missed assignments where he didn’t block a guy that in the run game could kill us,” Smart said. “His conditioning level has got to continue to improve. He lost a lot of weight, but just what he’s been through and overcome is such a great story, but he’s not where he needs to be. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s got to continue to grow, to get in shape, to change his body, and he can get an opportunity to help us. "
Gilbert wasn’t the lone Georgia player in the aforementioned Pro Football Focus mock draft. Jalen Carter, Nolan Smith and Kelee Ringo were all also tabbed as first-round picks. Those players are all more proven than Gilbert and it’s still rather ridiculous to have them penciled in as top picks in a draft that is still a year away.
Related: Three Georgia defenders appearing in first round of early 2023 NFL mock drafts
Consider that in a similar exercise last year, Pro Football Focus had Spencer Rattler, Sam Howell and Emory Jones as top-10 picks. Only Howell was drafted and he went in the fifth round.
No one saw Travon Walker as the No. 1 overall pick this time a season ago. Heck, few people saw Georgia as a National Champion this time a year ago. A lot can change in a year.
Gilbert could go on to have a great year for Georgia. But the difference in what Gilbert defines as a great year and what fans and media define as a great year are likely very different. He hasn’t played in a game since Dec. 5 of 2020. Just getting on the field consistently — especially in that tight end room — would be a win for both the talented tight end and Georgia.
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