As valuable as CJ Conrad was to the Kentucky football program over the last four years both on and off the field, the Wildcats might somehow be even better at the tight end position moving forward.
And the UK coaching staff certainly wants the world to know it.
Kentucky associate head coach and tight ends guru Vince Marrow has been singing Justin Rigg’s praises from the time he first set foot on campus in 2016, saying on multiple occasions on Kentucky Sports Radio that he believes the 6-foot-6 junior can be even more productive than Conrad, who started 42 of 49 career games at Kentucky, next season.
And then, one former defensive player that went heads-up with the entire tight end room last season told KSR on Saturday that he felt redshirt freshman Keaton Upshaw was actually the best tight end on the team last year during his redshirt season, even with Conrad and Rigg on the team. At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, he certainly looked the part at Kentucky’s open practice today.
Add in former four-star signee Brenden Bates coming off his redshirt season and current 6-foot-6, 235-pound true freshman Nik Ognenovic just now arriving on campus, that’s one heck of a four-man unit to work with.
At UK Football Media Day on Friday morning, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops bragged about what he has to work with at the tight end position, adding that one player in particular will be the “first off the bus” due to his massive, intimidating frame.
“I feel good, really good [about thee tight ends],” he said. “Justin Rigg is a guy that’s big, physical. He’s got soft hands. Excited about him getting the opportunity. C.J. Conrad has been such a mainstay for us for so long. To see Justin get that opportunity will be exciting. Brenden Bates, another good player, get an opportunity to see him. Keaton Upshaw, we’re all kind of mesmerized by him. He’s what you’re hunting. He’s first off the bus (smiling).”
UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said that not only will the entire tight end corps be sent off the bus first on game days, they’re also primed to make a massive impact on the football field this fall.
When asked about Conrad’s lack of involvement in the passing game over the last few years, Gran said he’ll have no choice but to make the inclusion of his tight ends a point of emphasis this season.
“We certainly have the pieces. I really like all those guys,” he said. “Our tight ends are going to look really good coming off the bus. Again, I think you’ve seen my mentality of, yes, we are going to be physical, we do need to run the football. But play-action pass using tight ends that can run, I think all of them can do that. You get them involved that way, use your personnel. … I think CJ [Conrad] is going to be really successful in this league because what we asked him to do there, I think that’s going to help him. We always knew he could catch. There’s sometimes where they doubled him, or they took some things away. As we got later into the year, it got a little bit better for him. Those guys [we have now] are weapons. They can run. I’m excited about that group.”
When asked about Keaton Upshaw in particular, while his massive frame is obviously the first thing to catch your eye, Gran said that the most impressive aspect of his game is just how well he runs for a guy his size. For a player built like a power forward, he runs like a gazelle.
“Number one, as big as he is, is how well he runs. There’s no stiffness. He runs very smooth,” he said. “What I liked about him is that he’ll stick his pace in there. He’ll get after it. Big bodies, sometimes like that they don’t. Early guys, freshmen, that physicality becomes tough. He showed us that he can do both.”
With Rigg, who will serve as the team’s starting tight end to open the season, Gran said that he will be asked to contribute in both on-field production and overall leadership in 2019.
If not, there are guys behind him that could absolutely make a push for serious playing time and potentially take his job.
“[I want him to] keep growing in his maturity in the game,” he said. “I think he can run and he’s really smooth. Justin, he’ll surprise you. He can run. His physicality at the point of attack is really good. I’d like for him just to be a leader and continue to grow in that position. It’s his job, just like Terry (Wilson’s), to lose. AJ Rose, whoever we have slated. We’re going to compete. He has a bunch of guys underneath him, just like I do at the running back position. I tell AJ every day, ‘You better get ready now, you have some guys coming after your rear-end.’ Same thing in that room. I just want to see him mature more in this offense in terms of the details and the fundamentals and taking care of his craft.”
On his KSR appearance back in June, Vince Marrow told listeners that out of all the positions on the field, he is least worried about the tight ends.
“Trust me,” Marrow told fans. “I coach that position. I am the least worried about that position. I think we are going to be very fine and these guys are going to do a good job for us this year.”
With Conrad now chasing his professional dreams in the NFL, Rigg is excited to take over where his former mentor left off.
“CJ, he showed all of the younger guys in the room how to be a tight end,” he told KSR. “What you have to do on and off the field to be a great tight end like he was. He was just a really great leader. But all of us, we’re ready to take that next step in our position group. … I just want to step into that role and be that leader for the younger guys [as Conrad was with me], he said. “I want them to push me and make me the best tight end that I can be.”
And though he realizes that Rigg is the unit’s leader going into the season, Upshaw is ready to step in and prove he belongs on the field, as well.
“I’m ready to come in and compete,” he said. “I’m ready to tell them that I want the spot. I’m going to fight for it. It’s going to be really good competing with the other tight ends. … I’m ready to do what I’m supposed to do, make plays, show them what I can do on the field. I want to help the team win.”