By LARRY VAUGHT
C.J. Conrad had all the tools — size, speed, strength, tenacity — that any college football team could want in a tight end.
Yet he never caught more than 30 passes in any one season — and that came his senior year when he was expected to get the ball a lot more often.
Kentucky co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw says tight ends should be targeted more often this season thanks in part to quarterback Terry Wilson’s experience and improved accuracy.
“We do have some talented tight ends. Keaton Upshaw is really good and at 6-6, 250, he can run and catches like a wide out,” Hinshaw said. “(Justin) Rigg back and (Brenden) Bates are both really good. You will really like our tight ends. And yes, we do need to complete more passes to the tight end and (tight ends coach) Vince (Marrow) says that to me all the time.”
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops says Conrad was a “mainstay for us for so long” that it will be different to have someone else as UK’s top tight end.
“Justin Rigg is a guy that’s big, physical. He’s got soft hands. Excited about him getting the opportunity,” Stoops said. “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 (for other teams to see).”
Eddie Gran, UK’s assistant head coach of the offense, jokes that the size and strength of UK’s tight ends makes them “look really good coming off the bus” to go play games.
“We are going to be physical, we do need to run the football. But play-action pass using use tight ends that can run, I think all of them can do that. You get them involved that way, use your personnel,” Gran said.
Conrad signed with the New York Giants as a free agent and has been turning heads in training camp. Gran says one reason is because Conrad can block better than most tight ends. Gran never doubted that Conrad could catch but he also often got double teamed because of UK’s lack of a consistency at wide receiver.
Gran believes this year’s group of tight ends can be threats in the passing game.
“Those guys are weapons. They can run. I’m excited about that group,” Gran said.
Upshaw is a player who didn’t get a lot of opportunities last year but could be a big surprise this year.
“Number one, as big as he is, is how well he runs. There’s no stiffness. He runs very smooth. What I liked about him is that he’ll stick his face 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,” Gran said.
Still, Rigg went into training camp No. 1 on the depth chart and Gran and Hinshaw both hope his maturity sets the pace for the other tight ends.
“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,” Gran said. “We’re going to compete. He has a bunch of guys underneath him. 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.”