UK Football

Does Kentucky have the best tight ends in the country? ‘They’ve got a chance to be.’

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Scouting the Cats

University of Kentucky football beat writer Josh Moore and columnist Mark Story are examining the 2019 Wildcats position by position through a series of nine stories leading up to the start of their season on Aug. 31 against Toledo. Click below to read previous installments in the series.

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University of Kentucky associate head coach Vince Marrow didn’t mince words when asked whether UK’s tight ends, for whom he’s responsible, could be the best collection of talent at their position in the country.

“I can say, honestly, that’s not being conceited, I think they’ve got a chance to be,” Marrow said midway through fall camp.

It’s hefty praise for a group that doesn’t return a starter and boasts just one scholarship player — junior Justin Rigg — who’s seen the field. The Wildcats have used walk-on Drew Schlegel sparingly in certain situations, but otherwise Rigg is it.

Not that Rigg is unprepared to take over for C.J. Conrad, who had started for the Cats going all the way back to 2015. He was No. 2 on the depth chart behind Conrad the last two seasons and played in every game in those campaigns after overcoming lacerations to a kidney and his spleen on separate occasions. Rigg started UK’s final two regular-season games last year.

Why is Marrow so high on his group? The junior is a big reason.

“I talked to C.J. the other night and he said, ‘Coach, you keep telling me them guys are better than me,’” Marrow said. “And I’m gonna be honest with you, Justin Rigg is better than C.J. Conrad. He’s more of what you look for in an all-around NFL tight end. He’s 6-6, 260, long wingspan, soft hands, he can block at the point of attack. … We’re gonna do some good things with him, we really are.”

Rigg is playing at “a different level,” but Marrow believes multiple guys can be game-changers on offense this year. After Rigg, Keaton Upshaw is the name most often coming out of the coaching staff’s lips when tight ends are the topic. The redshirt freshman was held out last season with a knee injury and battled hamstring problems in spring and fall camp, but he has impressed when available.

Don’t be surprised to see Rigg and Upshaw frequently on the field in tandem. Fellow redshirt freshman Brenden Bates and Schlegel might at times make it a trio.

“When you get two, three tight ends in there at a time, they don’t really know what’s gonna happen,” Rigg said. “Especially with this tight end group this year, I feel like we can spread the field, we can come in tight, we can do everything. All four of us can go in there and block, catch, anything.”

The blocking part is important, but fans want to see their part-time receivers have balls thrown their way. Conrad finished his career with 12 touchdowns, second-most in school history, and 1,015 receiving yards, 28th all-time in program history. He did that on 80 catches, an average of 1.6 per game in his 49 played at UK.

Rigg, who had four catches for 45 yards last season, said in UK’s first fall scrimmage he caught four passes. He thinks Terry Wilson, in his second year quarterbacking the offense, is throwing the ball better and is developing more trust with his group and other guys on the team.

“Our tight ends have been big targets and guys that have been making plays,” UK co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “ … Upshaw and Rigg, they’ve been doing a nice job.”

How many passes get put in their direction remains to be seen, but Marrow said he’s “always gonna politic” for it.

“I would (throw to the tight ends more),” Marrow said. “I think if you get a tight end that can run like (Rigg) and Keaton, it is a nightmare matchup for a lot of guys.”

Scouting the Cats

This is the sixth of nine stories looking at the 2019 Kentucky football team position-by-position.

Tight ends outlook

Leading men: After relieving C.J. Conrad the last two seasons, Justin Rigg is ready to move into the leading role. The Springboro, Ohio, native is 6-foot-6 and 263 pounds — an inch taller and 11 pounds thicker than Conrad his senior season. He’s played in every game the last two years, including two career starts against Middle Tennessee State and Louisville to close the regular season in 2018. Redshirt freshmen Brenden Bates and Keaton Upshaw should get their share of snaps, but Rigg has waited for this opportunity and will relish it.

Supporting cast: When describing Upshaw — a 6-6, 255-pound hoss who committed to UK over offers from Auburn, Louisville and West Virginia — head coach Mark Stoops used the word “mesmerized” in regard to the effect Upshaw has on him and the other coaches. He looks the part of a tight end who should someday play on Sundays, but injuries have been a concern — he sat out last year because of his knee and had hamstring flare-ups keep him from being at full strength in the latest spring and fall camps. Bates (6-4, 250) got into a couple of games last season and while he’s not been as flashy as Upshaw, his availability could make him crucial in the rotation. True freshman Nik Ognenovic (6-5, 231) needs his redshirt year to bulk up, but he belongs on campus and could be used “in case of emergency.”

Synopsis: From top to bottom, perhaps only behind both sets of linemen, fans should feel most positive about where this group is headed into 2019. There are four players with SEC-caliber bodies in the room, giving the Cats plenty of depth at a position that’s critical in their offense. Prepare thyself for the same gripes about their role in the offense — “Why aren’t they throwing to the tight ends more?!?!” — but do not fret about personnel.

Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.