UK Football

UK’s ‘Thunder and Lightning’ could make immediate impact on the football field this fall

Freshman tight end Keaton Upshaw (88) sticks his tongue out during the team photo portion of UK football media day at Kroger Field on Friday.
Freshman tight end Keaton Upshaw (88) sticks his tongue out during the team photo portion of UK football media day at Kroger Field on Friday.

One of the most recognizable players on this season’s UK football team is C.J. Conrad, the senior tight end who is arguably the nation’s top NFL Draft prospect at his position.

Conrad represented the team at SEC Media days last month, he’s on the cover of the fall media guide, and he’s grown into one of the clear leaders within the Kentucky program.

A couple of youngsters — freshmen tight ends Brenden Bates and Keaton Upshaw — hope to be in a similar spot later on in their college careers. They already look the part.

“They’re extremely talented,” Conrad said. “I’ve been impressed with them all summer. Just big kids — I did not look like that when I first came in here. They’re both just very natural. They have a lot to learn, but that’s for every freshman. I’m excited for them. They’re going to impress a lot of people during fall camp.”

Bates is listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, but he plays a lot stronger than that.

Upshaw is listed at 6-5 and 234 pounds, but he looks a lot bigger than that.

The freshman duo — along with Conrad and junior Justin Rigg — has tight ends coach Vince Marrow and the rest of the UK staff salivating over the possibilities, both for this fall and for a few seasons down the road.

“I think it’s more like Thunder and Lightning,” Marrow said. “It’s going to be a lovely sight to see.”

Marrow declared before the start of fall camp that this would be his most talented group of tight ends in six seasons at UK — he doubled down on that boast during media day last week — and the two freshmen are a major reason for his confidence.

UK tight ends coach Vince Marrow talks about his best group of tight ends with the Wildcats, specifically incoming freshmen Brenden Bates and Keaton Upshaw.

Bates played his high school ball for Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati, where he earned the reputation as a more-than-capable pass-catcher who would be just as happy knocking opponents to the ground as scoring touchdowns.

Marrow said Bates came to Lexington with a game good enough to play in Week 1, and his nose for blocking is his best immediate attribute.

“It’s very rare with a young tight end,” he said. “That’s the hardest thing you’ve gotta do when you recruit tight ends. They have to grow into it. Like, C.J. had to grow into that. Brenden Bates is already there. He will get on the field because he can block, and he can block right now. And we run the ball a lot.”

The mere mention of the most physical aspects of the sport brings an immediate smile to Bates’ face, one that grows even bigger as he gets going about mixing it up on the field.

“I just love contact. I love hitting people. That’s why I love tight end,” he said. “I could lose weight and be a wide receiver and just catch balls, but I love that contact. I love going in the hole and hitting linebackers as hard as I can. Just hitting people.”

Upshaw, who came to UK from a couple hours farther up the road in Lima, Ohio, hasn’t put on pads and stepped on a college football field yet, but he already looks like he’ll be right at home in the Southeastern Conference.

Marrow said he’s surprised the coaches with his ability to read and pick apart coverages. The physical gifts are there in abundance.

“Keaton is a guy that we can flex out, put him one-on-one even with a corner. Because he can run. He’s got soft hands,” Marrow said. “Keaton is more that new-wave tight end, but it’s kind of weird because he’s big. Usually those guys will be 6-3, 230. He’s 6-7, 245.”

Going by the eye test, Marrow’s measurements actually sound more accurate than what’s on the official UK roster. Upshaw’s blend of size, ball skills and speed make him one of the highest-upside young players on that roster.

“I think I bring versatility, toughness,” he said. “I’m a big man that can get up the field, score the ball, catch. But also get on the line. So I think I’m an all-around player.”

The NCAA’s new rule allowing players to appear in up to four games while still retaining their redshirt option should mean that Kentucky fans will see both of their new tight ends on the field this season, even with the return of veterans Conrad and Rigg.

Bates and Upshaw both said they were told they’d be given the opportunity to play right away and prove their worth to this year’s team, and the Cats’ expected reliance on Benny Snell and the run game in 2018 could mean a lot of two-tight end sets.

“So they’re going to have to be ready to play,” Marrow said. “With that new rule now — with four games you can play and redshirt — it’ll give me an idea of what they can do.

“If they can do it, then they’ll play the whole year. If they struggle a little bit, we have the opportunity to redshirt them. I just don’t see these two guys struggling. I think they’re ahead of any tight ends we’ve brought in here, physically and mentally. … So, I’m very excited, man. And I know our whole staff is.”

Brenden Bates is one of the top tight ends in the class of 2018. Bobby Ellis

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