When Arik Gilbert caught a touchdown in his first college game at LSU in 2020, I had hope. When Gilbert caught 2 touchdowns in Georgia’s spring game in April, I had hope again. And when Gilbert got into the end zone late in a Week 7 game against Vanderbilt, I had hope yet again.

The hope was that we’d get to see a decorated career from the highest-rated tight end recruit ever, AKA the high school star who was likened to “Pete Maravich on the football field” and had LSU teammates saying that he could be “the best tight end to ever play college football.” Even after Gilbert transferred from LSU to Georgia, Ed Orgeron declared that Gilbert was going to be an “All-American and a future first-round pick.”

Now, though, what’s being said about Gilbert is far less optimistic. Ahead of what could’ve been a full-circle game of sorts against his former LSU team in the SEC Championship, the status of the Georgia tight end doesn’t sound very hopeful.

“We’re trying to help him be the best person he can on and off the field, and that’s decisions we make each and every week,” Smart said (via DawgNation).

Mind you, that was after Gilbert didn’t suit up against Georgia Tech. He played in 31 snaps this season, and the aforementioned Vandy game was the last time he saw any action since Week 2.

This isn’t the place to speculate on what Gilbert has been dealing with because clearly, this isn’t a matter of being good enough to see the field. As an 18-year-old true freshman, Gilbert had more games with 4-plus catches than the true freshman versions of Kyle Pitts, Hunter Henry and Evan Engram … combined. On a per game basis, Zach Miller in 2004 was the only 5-star tight end in the 21st century who put up better numbers as a true freshman than Gilbert, who finished 2020 with 35 catches for 368 yards and 2 TDs.

But in 2 years at Georgia, those 31 snaps are all we’ve seen from Gilbert. The lone touchdown grab was different than any you’ll see in the 4th quarter of a lopsided game. Or rather, the reaction was different.

Not seen in that video was after some coaxing from teammates on the sidline, Gilbert celebrated with the Griddy (because he came from LSU). Gilbert’s Georgia teammates know what he’s gone through more than you, me or anybody on the outside looking in. Hence, their reaction.

Smart revealed at Georgia’s spring game that as recently as January 2022, Gilbert had ballooned up to 300 pounds. That was when he rejoined the program after he was inactive for the entire 2021 season. A spring of conditioning — he got back down to 250 pounds by G-Day — and learning the playbook was rewarded with a 2-touchdown spring game.

But even that day, you heard Smart say that “what he’s been through and overcome is such a great story, but he’s not where he needs to be.”

Unfortunately for Georgia, there are still issues preventing Gilbert from seeing the field and being a reliable contributor. Fortunately for Georgia, it has the best tight-end duo in America in Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington, which is why Gilbert’s absence has often been put on the back burner. The Dawgs are set to have their first top-40 passing offense of the post-Aaron Murray era and heading into conference championship weekend they’re favored to repeat as national champs.

It’s frustrating because Todd Monken could’ve made a healthy, active Gilbert an integral part of UGA’s weekly plans. In 2021, UGA was the only SEC team to have 3 different tight ends play at least 300 snaps. That’s not to say we would’ve seen Monken run 20 plays out of 13 personnel (1 running back, 3 tight ends) every week. But Gilbert was in the perfect spot to succeed.

I suppose I shouldn’t use the past tense with Gilbert because his career isn’t over. He’s expected to have 3 years of eligibility left after 2022 (the 2020 COVID season didn’t count against anyone and he took a redshirt in 2021). How long he’ll stay in college is anyone’s guess.

It’s bizarre to see NFL Draft experts like Mel Kiper Jr. talk about Gilbert as one of the top draft-eligible players at his position when he only appeared in 11 college games over the course of 3 years. It’s possible that Gilbert tests the NFL waters because physically, this was the guy coming out of high school who would’ve blended in with NFL defensive ends. But 31 post-true freshman snaps doesn’t exactly scream “NFL-ready,” especially at such a challenging next-level position.

In another universe, Saturday would’ve been a homecoming game against his former team a half hour from where he went to high school. It would’ve been an opportunity for Gilbert to perhaps boost his draft stock while helping Georgia clinch an SEC title. We would’ve watched him maximize his 20-25 snaps with a couple of highlight-reel grabs and everyone would’ve rolled their eyes at UGA’s embarrassment of riches at the tight end position.

More likely, though, is that Gilbert is an afterthought. In this universe, it seems that once again, Smart will have to find a way to tiptoe around the circumstances surrounding his absence between the lines.

Here’s hoping Gilbert’s story has a happy ending.