UK Football

After season of selflessness, could this be big year for Kentucky’s tight ends?

Kentucky Wildcats tight end C.J. Conrad (87) ran for a touchdown after catching a pass from Stephen Johnson as the University of Kentucky Wildcats played the New Mexico State Aggies at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016.
Kentucky Wildcats tight end C.J. Conrad (87) ran for a touchdown after catching a pass from Stephen Johnson as the University of Kentucky Wildcats played the New Mexico State Aggies at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. cbertram@herald-leader.com

For large portions of last season, Kentucky’s tight ends were beat up.

Both C.J. Conrad and Greg Hart had shoulder injuries. Conrad’s was so bad he had surgery to repair it after the season ended.

The Cats’ No. 3 tight end, Justin Rigg, missed most of the season after suffering a freak injury early on.

Knowing how important their position was to the Kentucky running game, Conrad and Hart kept playing despite pain that required regular injections before games.

It didn’t occur to them to sit out.

“We were winning games,” Hart said. “C.J. had the shoulder problem and I had the banged up shoulder. We’d get a shot before the game and then let’s go.”

Because the offense had to change so dramatically when starting quarterback Drew Barker went down for the season, the tight ends had to go from becoming viable targets in the middle of the field to regulars on either side of the line to buoy the run game.

“It was a group last year that I think had to be really selfless,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “We weren’t getting the ball to them a lot, whether that be targeted throws or what we had to do to win the game. For us to run the ball as well as we did, a lot of it was due to those tight ends.”

Conrad and Hart combined to catch 25 passes for 326 yards, including four Conrad touchdowns.

Not once did Conrad or Hart complain, tight ends coach Vince Marrow said recently.

“As a lineman, if you can block for two 1,000-yard rushers, you get a little pride in that, so they see that,” he said. “Most of those plays are coming off our blocks, gives you a little enthusiasm about it.”

The Cats’ two tight ends embraced the run, opening holes that led to huge gains for Boom Williams and true freshman Benny Snell.

“We had a great rushing offense,” Hart said. “C.J. and I never really talked about it at all. It was awesome being able to make blocks and letting a guy like that make plays and us to win games.”

They’d go back to their position rooms and try to figure out how to block even better next time.

“We really, really loved the fact that Boom or Benny were running off our blocks for touchdowns,” Conrad said. “It felt like we scored almost. We came to the sidelines and we were more fired up about that than us catching the ball.”

More than a handful of NFL scouts have been out to Kentucky’s preseason camp, Marrow said. They’ve told the UK tight ends they’d better be good at blocking if they’d like to make it to the next level.

“Catching balls and stuff is awesome, especially on TV and all that,” Hart said. “But in the football world — when we’re down in the trenches with the O-line making calls and making blocks and that finally works and the running back runs a big run off of us — there’s no feeling like that.”

But this season, Conrad, Hart, Rigg and even newcomer Jaylin Bannerman, who has made the switch from outside linebacker, could get an opportunity to show they’re more than blockers.

“They’ve really tried to hone their craft and they’ve done a great job, and I’m excited,” Gran said. “I’m excited about using them, and I’m excited about them getting the ball.”

Passing the ball to tight ends in space — something quarterback Stephen Johnson has been working on this offseason — will give the offense a new dimension, Gran said.

“If those guys can go in there and work linebackers and work nickel players and we can be consistent at that, we’ll be a lot better,” he said of his tight ends, noting that Hart had caught a nice ball in practice that day.

“We used the middle of the field, and caught a touchdown. So we’re able to use the middle of the field and attack it with those guys because they’re doing the right things.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Scouting the Cats

This is the eighth of nine stories looking at the 2017 Kentucky football team, position by position.

Scouting the tight ends

The main man: Since recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, junior C.J Conrad has become a force in both run blocking and the passing game, his coaches said. “He looks stronger with his punch, he’s running faster, more explosive,” position coach Vince Marrow said of the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder from LaGrange, Ohio, who has played in 25 games with 20 starts. Conrad enters the season with 34 catches for 411 yards and five touchdowns, including four last season.

The supporting cast: Senior Greg Hart, who had six catches for 32 yards last season, was a key figure in the Cats’ dominant run game last season, blocking for two 1,000-yard rushers in Boom Williams and Benny Snell. Conrad and Hart are joined this season by Justin Rigg, who missed much of last season after suffering a lacerated spleen. At 6-6, 246 pounds, Rigg is athletic and a big target in the middle. He’s still coming along in run blocking. After being shorthanded much of last season, coaches are supplementing the tight end spot with Jaylin Bannerman, a former outside linebacker. Once he gets the technique down, he could be impressive, Hart said. “He’s really natural,” he said of Bannerman, a 6-5, 240-pound redshirt freshman. “He’s an athletic guy. … He has a ton of potential and he’s going to do well for us in the future here.”

Outlook: Veteran tight ends Conrad and Hart worked a lot this summer with quarterback Stephen Johnson to help improve his accuracy over the middle of the field. “He’s gotten so much better, just like all of us have,” Hart said of the senior QB. “Going across the middle, putting the ball right on us, letting us make plays. It’s a huge asset to have.” Conrad and Hart have helped each other along, too, which is making the offense better. “They’re great,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “Those two tight ends, those first two, they work well together, they’re all about each other and they’re about this football team.”

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