Typically, when a player is considered among the best at his position nationally, that player has lots of expectations and hype surrounding him.
C.J. Conrad has neither. That might be a good thing for the Kentucky football program.
Position: Tight end
Measurements: 6’5”, 245 lbs
Hometown: LaGrange, OH
Recruit Rankings: No. 9 tight end in 2015 class
For many folks—myself included—Conrad’s skill set was not properly utilized during the 2017 season. Playing in only the first eight games of the season due to injury, his fourteen catches were a career-low—although he has yet to catch more than nineteen in any of his three seasons. However, he caught touchdowns on four of those plays, and went for at least twenty yards on six of them.
This was in large part to offensive coordinator Eddie Gran dialing up the same play—a play-action pass where Conrad leaded out past the linebackers and immediately caught a pass up the seam from quarterback Stephen Johnson. They didn’t run it often, but it worked nearly every time.
This year, Kentucky will need to find other ways to get Conrad involved in the passing game. Defenses are going to key heavily on Benny Snell, and for good reason. Conrad’s blocking, which is highly rated, will be very important to helping the Doak Walker candidate have a great season.
When defenses load the box, Conrad will need to become a security blanket for whoever gets the start at quarterback. Neither Gunner Hoak nor Terry Wilson have any game experience at this level, and the senior tight end will need to be someone they can locate and rely on when things break down.
This means Gran, for the first time in his time at Kentucky, will need to make Conrad a focal point of the passing game. Whether catching a pass down the seam, taking a screen pass for long yards, or turning a dump-off in the flat into a seventy-five yard touchdown, Conrad has shown throughout his career that he is a dynamic player, capable of making routine catches as well as big plays.
Conrad is expected to be playing on Sundays next year, and he will want an impressive season to boost his draft stock. Earlier this year, Mel Kiper of ESPN had Conrad ranked as the top tight end on his board, but that could easily change if he were to get lost in the shuffle.
A tight end has been taken in the first round of the NFL Draft in three of the past five years, so a successful season could be the difference between getting drafted in the third round, and getting that first-round paycheck many players covet.
For the offense to run as smoothly as many hope it will, it is very important that does not happen. Gran will need to be creative in the ways that he gets Conrad involved in the offense.
Whether he lines up alongside the tackle, in the slot, or in the backfield as an H-back, it is important to utilize Conrad’s skill-set to keep defenses off balance, and allow Snell a bit more room to operate.
If Gran fails to do this, and Conrad has games like last season where he did not even have a single target, it will be very difficult for Kentucky to win games. It also will likely lead to further frustration from those supporting the program.
Conrad must be made a focal point of the offense this season if Kentucky is to be able to have a successful season.