We’ve touched on every other skill position (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers) but now it is time to slide over to recruiting dynamo Vince Marrow’s group. Even after losing C.J. Conrad and his 42 starts to the NFL, expectations are still very high for this position group.
Behind a proven redshirt junior who has waited his time there are a couple of hotshot freshmen who have a ton of potential. Similar to the running back position, the Wildcats feel good about what they have heading into the season.
Kentucky fans have always had a unique infatuation with the tight end position. A large vocal portion of the Big Blue Nation wants the tight ends to be heavily involved in the passing game and they are not afraid to verbalize these expressions for the offensive coordinators to hear. We all know Eddie Gran has heard plenty of them.
If you go back two decades, you can begin to understand why the fan base values this position so highly. The year after Tim Couch left for the NFL, Dusty Bonner stepped in to run the show in 1999. The Valdosta State transfer had some clear arm talent limitations and the Wildcats had no star at receiver. Therefore, Hal Mumme decided to to make tight end James Whalen a target monster and it worked.
The former walk-on became a first-team All-American his senior season after he collected a school record 90 grabs, 1,019 yards, and 1o touchdowns. That reception record still stands today. A few years later, Jacob Tamme came to Lexington and recorded 84 grabs and eight touchdowns his last two seasons. Kentucky fans know what greatness looks like at the tight end position.
After a long stretch of mediocre play, C.J. Conrad arrived on campus in 2015 and immediately became a star. The Ohio native and blue-chip recruit was a very dependable blocker and made plays in the passing game when his number was called. It wasn’t called enough in the eyes of some, but he left some big shoes to fill.
The Tight End Room
Justin Rigg is entering his fourth year in the program and the former low three-star recruit has done pretty well after many predicted he would have to move to the offensive line. The Springboro, Ohio native played just three games as a true freshman before missing the year for injury. After that he’s established himself as a dependable blocker and a guy who can be a threat in the passing game.
The 6-foot-6 and 263-pound redshirt junior has eight career receptions and is averaging 12.1 yards per catch. Keep that yards per catch number up in a higher sample size and he could be quite a weapon. Kentucky may have some other tight ends who can athletically make more plays than Rigg, but it’s clear that he will be one of the most dependable parts of the offense in 2o19.
Last year many were high on Keaton Upshaw before he had to sit out all of 2018 due to a knee injury and would also miss most of the following spring. Last weekend’s open practice was likely the first time many saw the athletic tight end in action and the redshirt freshman oozes potential.
At 6-foot-6 and 247 pounds, the Ohio native already has next level size but what separates him from the rest of the roster is his athletic ability. Keaton Upshaw glides when he runs and has a very large catch radius due to his size and long arms. In high school, he flashed some big play ability by averaging over 17 yards per catch. This season, Kentucky could spread him out wide in order to create some mismatches when they go into 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). Keeping him healthy will be the biggest challenge due to recent injury history. Upshaw missed all of last season and currently nursing a hamstring injury at the beginning of fall camp.
Brenden Bates is back for his redshirt freshman season and the Cincinnati native has great size (6-foot-4, 250 pounds). He will be in the rotation this season and will be Kentucky’s best blocker at the position not named Justin Rigg. Nik Ognenovic is a true freshman that has a lot of potential. He’s is the second best athlete in the group behind Keaton Upshaw and could be used if absolutely needed.
With the questions surrounding the wide receivers, you could see Kentucky heavily lean on the tight end position. Justin Rigg can be used in a lot of different scenarios and will play a ton of snaps this fall. Look for Kentucky to use him similar to C.J. Conrad as a key blocker on numerous run schemes in addition to the work he’ll do in the passing game. But what is going to take this unit to the next level will be Keaton Upshaw.
Kentucky has not had an athlete like Upshaw at the position since Jacob Tamme and that alone should get you excited. The redshirt freshman has the ability to spread out and give this offense a ton of versatility. It wouldn’t be a shocker to see him become a vertical threat in the passing game in addition to being a very good red zone weapon.
Despite the loss of a program great, things are looking up for Vince Marrow’s position group. We could be entering a season where Kentucky is very heavily reliant on the the tight end position and it could mean that all four guys on scholarship will get some burn. We know what they’re going to get from Justin Rigg, but if the freshmen step up to the plate this is a unit that could be the surprise of the season.