Kentucky’s new offensive coordinators had been on the job for only a few days, and already they wanted to discuss their never-ending options at the tight end spot, especially C.J. Conrad.
“We know C.J. is really talented and we’re going to use him,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw told a select group of media in January. “We’re going to move him all around, make defenses have to be thinking about what they’re doing.”
Hinshaw wasn’t kidding.
Just a couple weeks into installing the Cats’ new multiple, pro-style attack, Conrad said tight end is clearly a position on the go.
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“I’m moved more around,” Conrad said Tuesday after UK’s first day of spring practice. “I’m in the slot. I’m kind of everywhere. I really like it so far.”
There are formations similar to ones they ran in the offense the past couple of seasons, but there are many different looks for the tight end spot, which produced just 15 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown last season.
We have a lot more formations than we did in the past. Maybe we’re doing the same play, but out of six different formations, a totally different look for the defense, which is awesome.
C.J. Conrad, UK tight end
“We have a lot more formations than we did in the past,” said Conrad, who had all of the tight end catches last season as a freshman. “Maybe we’re doing the same play, but out of six different formations, a totally different look for the defense, which is awesome.
“Moves me around a lot, moves the receivers around a lot, gets the ball to our playmakers.”
There are bigger packages with Conrad and the other tight ends attached to the line, hoping to open up holes for the running backs, too, head coach Mark Stoops said.
“He’ll be doing what he did last year with flexing out once in awhile, and he’ll be attached as well and off the ball playing like a fullback role as well,” Stoops said. “So, he’ll be very versatile. It’s key to have a really good player like that.”
Conrad caught the new coaches’ eyes the minute they saw him. They’ve been game planning for him and the others since they arrived at Kentucky.
“When you have a guy like C.J. — and I throw that out there just because I know a little bit about him — you can really have some mismatches by personneling people and doing different formations,” Eddie Gran, assistant head coach for the offense, said at his opening news conference.
Conrad will have plenty of help from Darryl Long, who will miss spring practice while coming back from surgery to repair a torn labrum, and Nebraska transfer Greg Hart, who Stoops said “looks good” early this spring.
“The more tight ends you use, the more sets you can get in,” Hinshaw said. “The thing about it at the end of the day is when you’re using and you’re shifting personnel and you’re playing fast, defensive coordinators don’t like that.”
Defensive coordinators probably also won’t love that Conrad said he’s spent a large chunk of his time in the weight room since the start of the year.
He missed much of the offseason conditioning last season while coming back from surgery, so this go-round has been important for him. The 6-foot-5 player from LaGrange, Ohio, says he’s “stronger than I’ve ever been before; I’m bigger than I’ve been before and faster.”
His coach agreed.
“C.J. really looks good,” Stoops said. “Really works at his craft and approaches the game the right way. He’s a great player, great addition. I love the way he plays and competes.”
His goal is not to just compete, but to lead, Conrad said.
“I’m a sophomore now, I want to take on more of a leadership role for this offense and just keep on getting better,” he said.
Injury updates for Williams, others
▪ Star running back Boom Williams will be wearing a no-contact jersey for spring after having surgery to repair the elbow he injured against Tennessee and again versus Louisville.
▪ Linebacker Nico Firios, who played in three games before sustaining an injury, also will have no contact during spring as he comes back.
▪ Wide receiver Alexander Montgomery, who suffered his second career torn anterior cruciate ligament against Vanderbilt, will miss spring, as will defensive tackle Tymere Dubose, who played in four games last season, getting one tackle against Mississippi State. Dubose tore his ACL, too.
QB update: Day One
With two new quarterbacks and all three in a new system under a new QB coach, Darin Hinshaw, it’s a learning spring for all.
When asked if he had any kind of time line for when he’d like to have an established signal caller, Stoops joked: “The time line was two months ago.”
But he said he’s not too concerned about establishing a starter, noting that Drew Barker is taking first-team reps, with junior-college transfer Stephen Johnson going with the second team. The third-team reps are being rotated, including among true freshman Gunnar Hoak.
“I do see a good confidence about those guys,” Stoops said of the QB spot. “Gunnar was a little anxious, as you can imagine. His first college practice, but you could see the talent in his arm, that’s for sure. But Drew (Barker) and Stephen (Johnson) were very comfortable.”
Other news, notes
▪ Fullback Will Thomas Collins, who was arrested late last week on alcohol intoxication and theft charges, will face internal disciplinary action, Stoops said Tuesday.
“There will be some punishment,” Stoops said of the 23-year-old senior from Breathitt County who played in all 12 games last season, starting the first two. “I’ve addressed that with him and talked with him. There will be some internal punishment, and there will be something else as well down the road.”
▪ The spring roster includes jersey numbers for newcomers. They are: No. 12 Gunnar Hoak, No. 15 Stephen Johnson, No. 52 Drake Jackson, No. 56 Kash Daniel, No. 75 Tate Leavitt, No. 77 Naquez Pringle and No. 81 Dakota Holtzclaw. Cincinnati quarterback transfer Luke Wright will wear the No. 14 formerly worn by quarterback Patrick Towles.