LSU has lost a whole bunch of key players from last year’s national championship team.

The absence of those players has created a darkish cloud over the defending CFP champions’ preseason preparations. Colleague Connor O’Gara predicted a 7-3 regular season.

But one arriving player has provided a ray of sunshine through the cloudiness.

A bright ray.

Usually it’s not a tight end who provides that kind of hope and excitement, but usually tight ends don’t have the credentials that Arik Gilbert has.

Gilbert arrived on campus in January as the most highly-touted tight end in Tigers history – and the legend already has grown even though LSU still doesn’t open season until Saturday when Mississippi State visits Tiger Stadium.

Let’s start with Gilbert’s numbers – 101 pass receptions for 1,760 yards (that’s 117.3 yards per game) and 14 touchdowns.

Those weren’t his career numbers, just his numbers as a senior last season as he helped Marietta High School win the Georgia 7A state title. Those numbers earned him Gatorade High School Player of the Year Award.

As for his career numbers, they were 243 catches, 3,540 yards (90.8) and 35 touchdowns.

The consensus 5-star recruit is the only freshman on the Mackey Award Watch List for the top tight end in college football.

On top of the numbers are the quotes.

The Tigers coaches and players are really impressed by Gilbert.

He caught 2 touchdown passes in LSU’s first scrimmage of the preseason, but it has been the day-to-day performance in practice that has been most responsible for the buzz around Gilbert.

Safety JaCoby Stevens called Gilbert (6-5, 249 pounds) “a freak of nature.”

“He runs like a receiver,” quarterback Myles Brennan said, “but he has the body type of a tight end.”

There’s the interesting part because LSU coach Ed Orgeron invoked the name of “Megatron” in describing Gilbert, a reference to former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, who was a wide receiver built like a tight end.

Orgeron has said the Tigers can utilize Gilbert in similar fashion to how the Lions used Johnson when first-year LSU passing game coordinator Scott Linehan was Detroit’s offensive coordinator.

That means the Tigers will utilize Gilbert in a variety of ways, split out wide, in the slot and with his hand on the ground in the traditional tight end stance.

Wide receiver Terrace Marshall, the Tigers’ No. 1 wide receiver after Justin Jefferson entered the 2020 NFL Draft and Ja’Marr Chase opted out of the 2020 season to prepare for the next draft, called Gilbert “eye candy.”

Given the Tigers’ new-found passing success, the absence of Jefferson and Chase as well as the presence of Marshall and other talented receivers to occupy defenders, it’s reasonable to expect Gilbert to have a significant impact as a freshman.

The bar has been set fairly low for record-breaking tight ends at LSU, though Thaddeus Moss raised it considerably last season. He set tight-end records with 47 catches and 570 receiving yards. His 4 touchdown catches fell 1 short of the record total shared by Richard Dickson (twice), Robert Royal and Brad Boyd.

If you’re looking down the road, the career records for Tiger tight ends are 90 catches (Dickson), 952 yards (Dickson) and 10 touchdowns (Dickson and Boyd).

Linebacker Jabril Cox sounds like he thinks all of those records are in serious jeopardy.

“If he continues to get better,” Cox said of Gilbert, “he could be the best tight end to ever play college football.”

Well, let’s let him catch a couple of passes first.

But all the factors are in place for Gilbert to threaten the records that Moss set last season – even with a 10-game schedule.