As a true freshman, C.J. Conrad gave Kentucky of fans plenty to cheer for, but in Shannon Dawson’s offense he was never a focal point. Conrad caught 15 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown, but it took him four weeks to catch his first pass.
Getting Conrad the ball will not be a problem under Eddie Gran.
Gran’s offense is known for targeting tight ends, most notably Travis Kelce, who many consider to be the NFL’s best tight end behind Rob Gronkowski. When Gran took over Cincinnati’s offense, Kelce’s numbers exploded. How Gran utilized Kelce at Cincinnati is how Conrad could be used this season at Kentucky.
There are a variety of different ways to get Conrad the ball other than simply saying, “throw him the damn ball.” Featured on this year’s preseason poster, there’s no doubt he’ll be a top target. Here are the most likely ways he’ll be used.
— Regular pro package. The base in a pro-style is the “11” personnel package, employing one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. With a nationally-televised spring game, this “vanilla” formation was primarily used to show opponents as little as possible from UK’s new offensive playbook
— Multiple tight ends. Also known as “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends), one thing Gran has at Kentucky he did not have at Cincinnati is a pair tight ends with different skill sets. Where Conrad is excellent in space, Greg Hart is a bone crusher. With questions at offensive tackle, Hart can remain home to help pass block while Conrad is freed up to run routes.
— H-back. Conrad lined up in the backfield as an h-back most often last season. It can either be offset the quarterback in a shotgun formation, or closer to the offensive tackle, lining up a yard behind and to the outside of the offensive line. The latter is where Conrad would most likely line up in multiple tight end packages.
The H-back alignment is probably the most dynamic position Conrad can play. Last year it was primarily for pass protection, but it best fits Conrad in the passing game to create mismatches with outside linebackers.
— Slot receiver. Conrad’s first catch against Missouri was streaking down the seam from the slot position, but he rarely lined up outside of the backfield. Even though Kentucky has multiple playmakers in the slot (Juice, Timmons), don’t be surprised to see C.J. making plays from the slot.
— Split out in the red zone. Shannon Dawson’s favorite red zone offense was the corner fade. It’s not an easy play to pull off, but it can be successful if the wide receiver has enough size and strength to create separation to make the catch, something that rarely happened when used last year. “Throwing it up high” might be a tactic employed to get Conrad the ball in the red zone. Multiple tight end sets can also be extremely effective in the red zone.
— The tight end screen. Unlike most quick screen passes to wide receivers, the backside tight screen is slow to develop. However, when it works, there isn’t a more frustrating play for defenses. Linebackers get caught up in the wash and rarely see the tight end leaking out, leading to big gains in the open field.
— Conrad in the Wildcat. This is the most unlikely because the Cats have multiple weapons at running back, but Kelce did run into the end zone for scores out of the Wildcat formation.
Even if I didn’t cover every possible way that Gran could get Conrad the ball this fall, it’s safe to say that no matter what, he’ll receive more touches. When Gran took over Cincinnati’s offense in 2013, Kelce’s numbers more than tripled in every statistical category. Don’t be surprised to see a similar leap from Conrad in 2016.