Even as a true freshman, Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad exceeded expectations.
The tight end became a sort of household name for his ability to run routes, catch and block well beyond his years.
But what most fans didn’t know is that when Conrad ran off the practice field, he often went straight to Greg Hart for tips and advice.
“He’s been a really big role model,” Conrad said recently of Hart, the transfer from Nebraska who had to sit out last season. “Even though I played last year and he was watching, it still felt like he was the veteran to me. … I learned a lot from him.”
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Now after his season on the sidelines, Hart gets his chance to show that he’s more than just a tight end tutor.
“I’m here to compete and I’m here to contribute and I will do that,” Hart said recently. “C.J.’s my roommate and one of my best friends … I know that me and him complement each other extremely well.”
In many ways, the two are mirror images. Hart is listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds. Conrad, who had 15 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown last season, is listed at exactly the same.
There are subtle differences in the two and how they play, but those are up for debate.
“I can block really well,” Hart assessed. “I feel like that’s become a strength of mine. (Conrad) has become a great receiving tight end and I’m a good one, too. We do things a little differently.”
Hart started as a wide receiver as a two-way player in high school at Archbishop Alter in Dayton, Ohio, with 30 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns his senior season. He bulked up and played tight end at Nebraska, where he learned to embrace blocking.
“Having Ameer Abdullah in the backfield and players like that, you learn how to block,” Hart said of the former Nebraska standout. “And having the offensive line we had, I developed my blocking a ton. I feel like I am coming to be an all-around tight end, pulling it all together.”
The tight end battle is going to be “very interesting” this season, said a giddy Vince Marrow, their position coach.
“Greg had everything: size, speed, played for a quarterback who went to Notre Dame,” Marrow said, noting that Hart might even be a step faster than Conrad. “We’re going to be very tight-end oriented in this offense.”
In fact, Marrow said he’d be surprised if there weren’t two tight ends on the field regularly in UK’s offense this season.
“When you get two tight ends that are almost similar, as an offensive staff, you’ve got to be forced to put them on the field at the same time,” he said.
That’s been a regular occurrence in fall camp, backup quarterback Stephen Johnson said.
In some packages, UK lines them up on different sides and in others plays them on the same side.
“So many matchup problems, especially with C.J.’s height and then Greg’s great hands,” Johnson said. “It’s truly going to be a problem for a lot of defenses.”
Hart has earned the quarterbacks’ trust in the same way Conrad did last season.
“Greg’s a phenomenal player,” Johnson said. “Every time you throw him the ball, he’s going to come down with it. I love seeing him out there as a target as well as C.J.”
New offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was coy when asked about the multiple tight end options, saying “no” quite facetiously when asked if UK had any packages where both Hart and Conrad were used.
Hart, who played in nine games at Nebraska, mostly on special teams before transferring to Kentucky, doesn’t seem to care if he’s in the game behind Conrad or beside Conrad.
“I think that’s a huge threat in this league and in college football in general,” Hart said of the versatility of the tight end and UK’s myriad options. “We’re both capable of making a huge difference and having an impact on this team. I have no doubt in my mind that I’m going to contribute a lot.”
Southern Miss at Kentucky
When: Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m.