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Arik Gilbert is a freshman tight end at LSU.

Kirby Smart examines pros and cons of in-conference transfers as Arik Gilbert drama grows

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Potential Arik Gilbert transfer could open up further issues with SEC transfer rules

When 5-star tight end Arik Gilbert initially committed to LSU, it was treated as a miss for Georgia from a recruiting perspective. Gilbert was the top player in the state of Georgia for the 2020 cycle, and given the struggles Georgia had at wide receiver and tight end during the 2019 season, his addition would’ve been a major influx of talent.

And yet, Georgia still couldn’t convince him to stay home, as he instead picked LSU over the Bulldogs and Alabama.

“I think that Georgia really did a great job of recruiting me honestly,” Gilbert said in October of 2019. “I just didn’t feel it.”

After missing on the initial attempt though, it looks like Georgia may have a chance to rebound with Gilbert. The freshman tight end opted out of the 2020 season this week and reports are circulating about him potentially entering the transfer portal, with home sickness being one of the mentioned reason.

Ed Orgeron even gave some credence to those rumors by admitting that he’s hoping to bring Gilbert back to LSU for the 2021 season.

“Do I think we have a chance at getting him back next season? Yeah,” Orgeron said. “Is there a chance of him transferring? I don’t know that. He hasn’t told me he’s transferring, but obviously we’re going to re-recruit him and obviously we wish him the best.”

Related: LSU tight end Arik Gilbert opts out of season, no decision on transferring yet

Gilbert represents a very high-profile example of what could become a major trend in college football in the coming seasons. As the NCAA seems poised to allow a blanket one-time transfer rule, the possibility of having more players like Gilbert, or former Georgia offensive lineman Cade Mays, transferring come into play.

Sure, you may lose out on a recruit the first time around. But with transfers becoming a more viable option, it’s wise to continue to stay on good terms with prospects even in the event they don’t choose you the first time around.

Georgia and coach Kirby Smart have already seen an example of this with Demetris Robertson, even if Robertson’s transfer situation predates the creation of the transfer portal.

As a 5-star recruit, Robertson originally signed with Cal over Georgia as a member of the 2016 recruiting class. But after spending his first two seasons on the other side of the country, Robertson wanted to be closer to his family.

Smart never reacted negatively when Robertson first signed with Cal and made sure to note that the door was always open at Georgia.

“I wasn’t mad when D-Rob didn’t come. I told him congratulations, best wishes and let us know if we can ever help him with anything,” Smart said.

That line of recruiting has been consistent with Smart, as Justin Fields was offered the same opportunity after transferring to Ohio State following the 2018 season. Fields admitted he considered transferring back to Georgia but ultimately stuck it out with Ohio State and the Buckeyes.

For both Fields and Robertson, they were granted immediate eligibility to play right away. And should the NCAA pass legislation in early 2021, that may be the case for all college football players going forward.

Smart and his fellow coaches have been planning for this to happen. The bigger focus for Smart though seems to be on what the SEC is going to do with regards to transfers between SEC member institutions, such as Mays and possibly Gilbert.

The SEC has a rule in place that requires intraconference players to sit out a season, even if the NCAA grants them eligibility. This is why Mays did not play in the first two games of the 2020 season, even though the NCAA granted him a waiver.

Commissioner Greg Sankey granted a blanket waiver for players who fell under this category for this year, pointing to the unprecedented times of 2020 as a reason why. But that rule still exists going forward.

“Our member institutions have been clear in the past that they oppose immediate eligibility for intraconference transfers,” Sankey said in a statement back in October. “Given the increased number of waiver requests this year, and a changing national landscape related to student-athlete transfer issues, it is evident that the current transfer bylaw must undergo a thorough review by Conference membership in the most timely manner possible and prior to the 2012-22 academic year.”

What does Smart think of this rule, especially as 2020 saw two former Georgia players transfer to other SEC schools and play right away?

He clarified that he was giving an honest answer as opposed to the usual indifference on the matter.

“As every coach in the SEC probably wouldn’t admit, it’s all about who they can get based on how they want that rule,” Smart said. “If you have the guy sitting out there that is going to change your team, guess what you want? You want it to change, right? If you are playing against them you may not want it to change.

“It’s a selfish world out there, and every guy is trying to do what gives his team the best chance to win and it really should be based on what’s best for the players and what’s best for the longevity of our conference.”

Smart recognized that the public will favor immediate eligibility as it is often portrayed as giving the player what they want.

But he seemed to make it clear he wasn’t all that thrilled about rushing into opening the transfer floodgates. Even if that means a player as talented as Gilbert would have to sit out a year if he happened to choose Georgia.

“It’s a really tough situation because I don’t say that from the guys that left here—it’s not about that for me,” Smart said. “It’s about what’s best for our conference, what’s best for our programs, what’s best for the game of football, and what’s best for the kids.”

With Gilbert — who caught 35 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns this season — this larger discussion might be moot. He could ultimately decide to remain at LSU, something Orgeron very much wants.

But should he enter the transfer portal, which he has not yet, it would hurt the LSU program a whole lot if he picked either Alabama or Georgia. In that circumstance, LSU might be against allowing immediate eligibility for intraconference transfers.

Conversely, you might understand why Nick Saban might publicly take a stance similar to that of Jeremy Pruitt or Lane Kiffin, who pushed for immediate eligibility as Mays and Otis Reese waited for clearance.

Related: Jeremy Pruitt says Tennessee transfer plea ‘not just about Cade (Mays)’

Whichever team Gilbert ends up playing for in 2021, he figures to help them out quite a bit. But if the league — and NCAA — open up immediate eligibility for all players, schools like Georgia and Alabama figure to really benefit on a more regular basis.

That’s been the case with the College Football Playoff, as it has been the same elite teams in contention every year. The elite teams in college football — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, etc., — always end up using the flaws in the system to their advantage.

Gilbert is an elite player. He’s worth recruiting again should he enter the transfer portal. Georgia could still use a talent like him.

He also might further open the Pandora’s Box that is transfers in college football.

“If they choose to go in the portal, great. If there are kids in the portal that we had relationships with, then we’re going to communicate with them if they are interested,” Smart said. “It hasn’t changed the way we have recruited.”

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