For as freakish as Arik Gilbert is, a seamless transition to wide receiver isn't a given
When news of Arik Gilbert’s transfer to Georgia broke earlier this week, there was the initial internet shock. Well, maybe “shock” is the wrong word. After all, Gilbert returning to his home state to play for the program that collects 5-stars like baseball cards felt inevitable, to a certain extent.
Whatever the appropriate word was, the aftershock was finding out that Gilbert would be switching from tight end to receiver. Like, the guy 247sports rated as the best tight end recruit ever. Like, the guy who had more games with 4-plus catches than the true freshman versions of Kyle Pitts, Hunter Henry and Evan Engram … combined. And yet, he’s already played for/been committed to 3/14 of the SEC in the last 7 months.
Nothing should really be a total surprise with the fluidity of Gilbert’s atypical college journey. But going from tight end to receiver? That’s, um, significant. And atypical. At least at this phase of his promising career.
That’s why it’s not a given that Gilbert takes off at his new position in 2021.
Before Georgia fans roast that take, consider a few things about Gilbert’s game at 6-5, 250 pounds. Yes, there are similarities between playing tight end and receiver. It’s not like Gilbert was lined up inline and used as a blocker on half his snaps as a true freshman at LSU.
Here’s Gilbert’s snap count breakdown (via Pro Football Focus):
- Inline: 319
- Slot: 195
- Wide: 36
That last number is important. Gilbert was split out wide on just 6.5% of his snaps as a true freshman. The assumption was that Gilbert was going to play receiver in part because George Pickens is expected to miss the first part of the season with a torn ACL. Where did Pickens play predominantly? Out wide. That’s where 93% of his snaps came.
Why not just line Gilbert up in the slot exclusively? Gilbert figures to get plenty of work there, but we need not forget that UGA’s top returning receiver with Pickens out is Kearis Jackson … who played 93% of his snaps in the slot.
So on the surface, why did this move make sense for both parties from a schematic sense? Darnell Washington only caught 7 passes last year as Georgia’s 5-star freshman, and he caught more passes than any Georgia tight end. Washington, by the way, tore it up in the spring and is expected to be in a much bigger role. Unless Georgia planned on running a bunch of 12 personnel (1 running back and 2 tight ends), why have Washington and Gilbert both at tight end?
And for Gilbert, there are a few benefits here. For starters, not having to line up across SEC defensive ends seems like a nice bonus. For someone who struggled immensely in limited reps as a pass blocker and showed promise as a run blocker, it wasn’t like Gilbert was built in the George Kittle mold as a tight end who truly prides himself on blocking.
But just because Gilbert excelled as a pass-catcher in his role as a true freshman doesn’t guarantee he’s going to have success there at Georgia.
It’s different when you can outrun linebackers on drag routes or when you can make a play in the seam against an over-the-top safety. It’ll be interesting to see how Gilbert adjusts to playing against press coverage with a corner lined up on him. Or when the corner does give him a cushion — I wouldn’t expect to see a ton of that until he shows he can truly dominate on the outside — can be be precise enough in his routes to get that 6-yard gain?
Even though he was in a bit of a hybrid role, there weren’t a ton of those situations in which Gilbert shined while lined up on the outside in 2020 (via The Dawg Bark):
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Gilbert, who just turned 19 a few months ago, slimmed down a bit from his 250-pound frame. Just for a little context, remember that Calvin Johnson, AKA “Megatron” was 6-5, 239 pounds. The guy also ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and had an 11-foot, 7-inch broad jump at the NFL Combine.
We know that Gilbert has freakish abilities of his own, but he’s not running a 4.35-second 40 anytime soon (he ran a 4.73-second 40 as a recruit). That’s not my way of diminishing his abilities. The guy already has an NFL body.
It’s just worth remembering that there’s a transition here, and it’s not one that Gilbert will have a ton of time to make. It’s also not one Georgia has a ton of time to make. Todd Monken is now going to have to look for ways to get Gilbert involved as much as possible. It’s a good problem to have, for sure. Every program in America wanted that problem.
If Monken uses Gilbert correctly, he’ll be the problem that Dawgs fans are hoping for. In a perfect world for Georgia, Gilbert becomes the second coming of Kyle Pitts. What Pitts showed he could do as a junior was truly line up anywhere and dominate. He still spent roughly 2/3 of his offensive snaps inline playing a more typical tight end position. Pitts proved he could dominate guys lined up on the outside at 240 pounds.
In theory, that’s what Georgia hopes Gilbert can become. In actuality, that’s still extremely difficult to do at this level.
It’ll be fascinating to see how Gilbert progresses. If you’re setting the bar at an All-America level in his Year 1 exclusively at receiver, I’d say temper those expectations. There’s no doubt that Georgia landed a unique weapon who does things at 6-5, 250 pounds that we rarely see from college players, much less from an 18-year-old true freshman.
Gilbert’s journey never ceases to entertain. Something tells me his transition to receiver will be no different.