Last Saturday's open practice seemed to be a success for at least one player:
C.J. Conrad ends the scrimmage with his second TD catch of the day.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) March 26, 2016
Conrad's future is bright. The "crown jewel" of the 2015 Class started every game last season, but his production didn't match the expectations of many. Still, despite being a freshman, Conrad finished the season with 15 receptions, and a nearly 10 yard per reception average. These were the most receptions by a UK tight since senior Nick Melillo in 2011.
That's a promising start, but it wasn't enough for a vocal subset of fans. To their credit, they did not make Conrad the scapegoat, but instead directed their ire towards Shannon Dawson; however, that wasn't entirely fair either.
How Much Blame Does Shannon Dawson Deserve?
The spring football whipping boy has clearly been former offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. His corpse has not yet gone into full rigor mortis before the vultures have picked the meat from every bone. From comments by current quarterback’s coach, to the casual fan on the message board, Shannon Dawson did not know how to teach, run an offense, or use a tight end.
The argument reaches its own conclusion: Had he known what he was doing, UK would have scored more points, gained more yards and won more games. As a byproduct, UK would have had an All-American freshman tight end.
Unfortunately, and contrary to public opinion, I don’t believe Dawson misused Conrad at all. In fact, I believe he put him in the best position to succeed and help the offense move the ball. There is substantially more to the tight end position than running a drag route.
Hal Mumme had James Whalen for four years and three of those with Tim Couch, but James caught seven passes as a sophomore, and 23 as a junior. He scored just three TDs before Couch went to the Cleveland Browns as first overall pick in the 1999 draft. His senior year, Whalen caught more passes (90) than any tight end in major-college history which also happen to have been five more receptions than Couch's prime 1998 target, wide receiver Craig Yeast.
The tight end position is most effective when he can work through zone defenses which are being stretched by effective wide receivers. The tight end is even more effective when he can work from one side of the field to the other. In order to do to this, there must be time to throw.
And therein lies the rub for UK last season: there were very few pure zones, and the quarterbacks had very little time to throw.
Conrad In 2015
So, what did the dunce Dawson do? He put Conrad on the field to become the best option at helping the tackles pass block, or blocking second level defenders on run plays. There were times he was asked to flex out and become a receiver, but he was not faster than the older linebacker who would be over him.
One of the favorite plays of any coordinator with an attached tight end is to run him down the seam. This was tried, but again, the pressure forced the quarterback to abandon the pocket before Conrad was in position to catch the ball.
So, Dawson abandoned those plays when anticipating pressure, and instead used him as a blocker and a flat release receiver. Conrad's opportunities were altered because of the failings at other positions beyond his control.
Below you will see Conrad aligned in an H back position. He is going to arc release and get to the hook to curl zone and work on the strong safety. The running back will run to the flat and draw the strong linebacker. The problem: the defensive end whipped the right tackle and was in the backfield before the quarterback could even get his eyes on his read. This is not a cherry picked snap, it was one of the fatal flaws of the offense.
On this snap, Conrad again is aligned in the H back position, He is going to run a wheel up the sideline getting a favorable match-up on the Will linebacker. But, the quarterback gets flushed as the left tackle gets whipped from the snap. This is akin to playing Madden and your B button does not work all the time.
So, Dawson used Conrad skills to block in space and run this tunnel screen and let him block a free safety in the open field. Unfortunately, the releasing guard whiffed on the linebacker who blew up the receiver.
This is not to defend Dawson or to prove to you he was a genius or a dunce, but, a look at why he was using Conrad as he did. Below are a few cutups of Conrad.
Conrad in 2016
In order for Eddie Gran to be able to use Conrad more as a deep zone receiver, he must be confident his protection will be solid to allow Conrad to clear the under zones, or to cross the field before the pocket collapses. I fully admit to being one to side with the coach, just don’t be so quick to carve up the corpse of Shannon Dawson.