UK Football

After ‘crazy string of bad luck,’ UK tight end ready for some good fortune

Kentucky players probably won’t be complaining to Justin Rigg about the bruises and cuts they’ve gotten early in fall camp.

The junior tight end has become the epitome of freak — and serious — injuries during his couple of seasons on campus.

During the second game of his first season, Rigg was hit awkwardly on a kickoff return and his body twisted in a weird way. Before he had reached the sideline, his back was aching. It got worse and worse as the game continued. It turned out to be three kidney lacerations that had him sit out the rest of the way.

Rigg doesn’t even recall what happened on his most recent injury in March.

“I just remember running a route and colliding,” he said. “Then it is just a blank.”

It was a UK cornerback that he smacked into during a drill to open spring practice. Rigg was back in the hospital again.

“I take the blame for that,” tight ends coach Vince Marrow said. “I sent him on a corner route and he ran into a DB.”

It was a familiar injury — an organ laceration — but this time it wasn’t a kidney, but his spleen.

“They both were freak accidents,” Marrow said, head shaking. “It’s just been a crazy string of bad luck.”

Rigg never imagined he’d ever need the organ laceration protocol knowledge he retained from that first injury, but it came in handy and helped him get back on his feet quickly this time around.

“I kind of knew what steps to take this time to get myself prepared for fall,” Rigg explained. “The first time I just kind of laid there, sat around. This time I knew I needed to eat right, I needed to get in to see the trainers to prepare myself for the start of fall camp.”

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Tight end Justin Rigg (83) congratulated teammate Benny Snell after the running back scored against Louisville in November. Some of Rigg’s best games last season came at the end and coaches believe he’s in for a big season in 2018. Mark Mahan

After two internal organ lacerations, what went through Rigg’s mind before the start of this season? Did he have second thoughts about getting back on the field?

“I didn’t have one doubt. I knew I was going to get back out there as soon as the doctors said it was OK,” said the 6-foot-6, 257-pounder who had three catches for 40 yards last year, including two big catches in the Music City Bowl. “I just wanted to get back on the field.

“If the doctor says it’s good, then it’s good. I love football and I don’t ever want to stop playing.”

The injuries and the hospital visits briefly crossed his mind before he ran out on the field for the first practice almost two weeks ago, but “once I was out there, it just all cleared out,” he said.

If Rigg can have a healthy season, Marrow has no doubt that it will be a great one. The tight ends coach said Rigg is just as good as UK standout C.J Conrad, who earned preseason All-Southeastern Conference honors.

“He’s been awesome since he’s been back out here so far,” Marrow said of Rigg. “I’m very psyched to see him out there now.”

Coaches are excited about the prospect of two experienced, bigger tight ends for UK for blocking purposes and for the mismatches they can create in the passing game.

“Justin’s a big, strong, in-line blocker,” Marrow said. “He’s like another offensive tackle in there but he can move. And what people don’t realize is he’s got some real soft hands for a big guy.”

Marrow and his veterans have never been more excited about the Cats’ tight end group, which includes Conrad, Rigg and true freshmen Brenden Bates and Keaton Upshaw.

“Instead of just having two or three guys, we have four or five guys who can just rotate a lot more, spread us out, do all types of fun stuff, double tight ends and stuff. It’s going to be great,” Rigg said.

After missing all of last spring with a spleen laceration, tight end Justin Rigg was happy to be back on the field for Kentucky’s open practice recently. Matt Goins

Scouting the Cats

This is the fifth of nine stories looking at the 2018 Kentucky football team position by position.

Scouting the tight ends

The main man: Senior C.J. Conrad has been an impressive blocker for his three years on campus and has become a key mismatch that UK’s offense will try to utilize more this season. Conrad has 50 catches for 697 yards and nine touchdowns in three seasons. He had big-play capabilities, averaging 17.9 yards per catch last year and scored on one-fourth of his 16 catches. Conrad said he is fully back after being sidelined this offseason after having shoulder and foot surgery. Conrad has become like a coach in the room for tight ends coach Vince Marrow. “C.J. is so professional and he has no ego and he coaches these young guys,” Marrow said. “I can literally go to a staff meeting and he can run my room.”

The supporting cast: At UK’s open practice two weeks ago, Conrad pointed out that he is now the smallest guy in the tight end room including Justin Rigg (6-foot-6, 257 pounds) and true freshmen Keaton Upshaw (6-5, 234) and Brenden Bates (6-4, 240). At 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, Conrad stretched the truth a little, but what he points out is obvious: UK has some massive players at tight end this season. All of the above likely will see action on the field this season and have the size and athleticism to be weapons for the UK offense. Rigg seemed to be coming on at the end of last season and is expected to take a big leap this season.

Outlook: While Conrad was laid up with shoulder and foot recovery this offseason, the senior tight end spent much of his time learning the nuances of nearly every position on the offense. Especially now that there are four capable tight ends in the room, look for Conrad to be used as much more than just a blocking and occasional pass-catching tight end. “This is the best group we’ve ever had,” Rigg said. “All of us are big, physical, great all-around tight ends.”