What problems star LSU freshman tight end Arik Gilbert could cause for Alabama football

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Tight ends have enjoyed great success against Alabama’s defense this season, particularly in the first three weeks. In those games against Missouri, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, tight ends accounted for nearly 30% of the receiving yards allowed and scored three times.

This week, Alabama faces the most sought-after tight end in the Class of 2020, one who was heavily pursued by UA, as well. And due to events around him, he may be the best option regardless of defensive shortcomings.

Arik Gilbert was a top five prospect in the Class of 2020, and his production as a freshman has lived up to that billing: 30 catches for 339 yards and two touchdowns. Out of both matchup and necessity, LSU (3-4) may turn to Gilbert often on Saturday (CBS, 7 p.m.) against No. 1 Alabama (8-0).

“I’d like us to get Arik Gilbert the ball more, he’s an excellent player,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “We can move him out to the wide receiver position.”

Most of Gilbert’s work as a pass catcher has been when lined up as a receiver, as opposed to in line or on the wing as a tight end. When he had six catches for 55 yards against Auburn, all but one of those catches came lined up as a wide receiver.

LSU has frequently used Gilbert in trips or bunch formations, where three wide receivers line up on the left or right side of the formation, making it easier to lose Gilbert in traffic for easy yards. The Tigers have also used halfback motion into or out of the backfield to manipulate coverage schemes, creating matchups for the 6-foot-5, 249-pound tight end.

“Tight ends are really difficult mismatch guys because of who ends up covering them most of the time,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “You have your best corners covering wide receivers, but when these guys are lined up close to the core, their run-pass options are more difficult to define relative to how they line up and who ends up covering them and who ends up matching up on them. I’ve always said that a tight end and a great running back are hard to cover. Those guys are mismatch problems because unless you put six defensive backs in there you’re not going to have cover guys on them. You’re going to have guys that you’re probably putting on the field because they’re good at stopping the run and other things.”

Several factors make Gilbert useful for the Tigers, but if he does see an increased workload on Saturday, it may be more necessity than anything else.

Wide receiver Ja’marr Chase opted out before the season began and Terrace Marshall opted out over the weekend. Marshall’s departure is a critical blow: he’s responsible for a third of LSU’s receiving yards and 10 of its 17 receiving touchdowns.

Racey McMath — fifth on the team in receptions and yards — is unlikely to play due to injury, Orgeron said.

As much as Marshall’s departure raises questions about what LSU’s offense will be in its final few games, it raises just as much opportunity for other players, including Gilbert.

“When these guys have clicked on all cylinders, they score 30 points a game, they can be a pretty good offensive team,” Saban said. “I do think they have enough skill players that they can still have plenty of guys to make plays. You never know for sure to anticipate that they'll do things a whole lot different.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson