Today in college football it is not uncommon to see offenses just ignore the tight end position completely. In the age of the spread offense it is very common to see teams employ three and four wide sets on most plays and that essentially eliminates the tight end spot. Kentucky was headed that same way until 2016 and now their identity has change.
Kentucky now spends a majority of its snaps in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers) as it will utilize four scholarship tight ends this fall. These positional series previews are pretty common around the world wide web (make sure you check out quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers) but not many places will devote an entire spot to tight ends. However, this group deserves it as UK fields a future draft pick as well as a heavy use of the position in the offense.
C.J. Conrad enters his senior season as Kentucky’s most accomplished tight end since Jacob Tamme’s impressive run from 2003-2007. The Ohio native was a big get for the 2015 recruiting haul and he’s produced ever since his true freshman season. After taking his lumps as a rookie and not being used much in the pass game, Conrad came into his own as a sophomore in 2016 as he hauled in 19 receptions and four touchdowns. As a junior he took another step forward as he became one of the country’s finest blocking tight ends and still remained a huge threat in the passing game. For his career Conrad has nine touchdowns on 50 career receptions. Therefore he is crossing paydirt once every 5.6 catches. That’s efficiency, my friends.
When you see these numbers and take a glimpse at Conrad’s athletic frame, it’s hard for many to understand just why he is not used more in the passing game. Last year he was used specifically off of RPO looks where Conrad was just a release option. On this play the quarterback would read the linebacker line up over top of the tight end and if he bit on the run Conrad would be wide open. This exact play was responsible for three of UK’s four touchdowns.
Tight End Room
Conrad steals the headlines but there are plenty of other good players at this spot. Justin Rigg enters his junior season at 257 pounds and he may be just as good of a blocker as Conrad. In the bowl game without Conrad to close the season, Rigg stepped up as he hauled in two grabs for 34 yards.
Last year UK lost Greg Hart to graduation so it was clear the tight end was a position that needed to be addressed in the 2018 recruiting class. UK responded by going up to Ohio and picking up two tight end prospects. Brenden Bates is in the mold of Conrad and Rigg as he checks in at 240 pounds and looks physically ready to play this fall. The Cincinnati native is an alumni of the Archbishop Moeller powerhouse and you can guarantee that he’s been well coached and will not afraid to get physical. Next UK switched it up a little bit by grabbing Keaton Upshaw. The Lima, Ohio native has the size of the other tight ends but he appears to be an upgrade in the athleticism department. Down the road, he could bring a different element to the UK passing attack.
Conrad is a program great and it’s really a shame that he wasn’t the preseason first team All-SEC tight end because he deserved it. The senior has done nothing but produce and he’s in for a big season as long as he can stay healthy. Last year it seemed the UK staff was very comfortable playing with just three tight ends and I’d look for that to continue this year. Rigg will be the unquestioned backup while the blocking ability of Bates gives him an edge over Upshaw.
It was clear early in 2017 that UK put an emphasis on having Conrad heavily involved in the passing attack. That showed in September as he had nine receptions, 195 yards, and three touchdowns. But as October and November arrived, the double teams came and the tight end would only have seven receptions for the rest of the year. How UK develops different wrinkles to get Conrad in open space could make a huge impact.
This is a very flexible position in the UK offense as tight ends will be used as a part-time fullback, are sent in motion frequently, and are even involved in the screen game. Rigg flashed potential last year and he could have a bright future. Bates and Upshaw are both intriguing prospects while Conrad will be a draft pick in 2019. Marrow has some tools top play with asthis position group could be one of the best in the SEC if the Wildcats can stay healthy.