Even with C.J. Conrad gone, Kentucky football has plenty of depth at tight end

Jon Hale
Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — Kentucky football’s 2019 preseason camp opens Aug. 2. To get you ready for the start of football season, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the roster. Up next in the series are the tight ends. You can also read previous installments in the series about the quarterbacks, defensive backs, running backs, special teams, offensive line, outside linebackerswide receivers and defensive line.

Projected starter: After working his way back from multiple injuries to internal organs — a lacerated kidney as a freshman and lacerated spleen in spring 2018 — Justin Rigg (6-foot-6, 263 pounds, junior) is poised to take on a featured role in the offense. A year ago, he totaled four catches for 45 yards while serving as C.J. Conrad’s primary backup. With Conrad unavailable for the 2017 Music City Bowl, Rigg caught two passes for 34 yards, so he has shown potential to be a productive member of the passing game.

Rigg’s size should make him a capable blocker, and despite the worrisome injury history, he has actually appeared in all 13 games in each of the last two seasons. There is exciting talent behind him on the depth chart, but Rigg's veteran presence will be key for the position.

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Other returning players: Conrad’s contributions both as a receiver and a blocker will be difficult to replace, but tight ends coach Vince Marrow is so high on Rigg’s young backups he pronounced this spring the talent in the tight end room was actually better this season than last, even after Conrad’s departure.

Redshirt freshmen Brenden Bates (6-foot-4, 256 pounds) and Keaton Upshaw (6-foot-6, 255 pounds) are the sources of that optimism and should both see the field this fall. Bates played in a run-heavy offensive attack in high school, so he has plenty of experience as a blocker. Upshaw has wide receiver skills and tight end size, so his versatility could be key in allowing the offense to move quickly without substituting when he is on the field.

Walk-ons Drew Schlegel (5-foot-11, 223 pounds, senior) and Patrick Henschen (6-foot-6, 232 pounds, junior) could compete for roles on special teams.

Important losses: Kentucky’s run-heavy offensive attack prevented Conrad from quite reaching the lofty expectations fans placed on him as a pass-catcher, but he was still easily the most productive UK tight end since Jacob Tamme’s graduation a decade earlier. As a senior, Conrad caught 30 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns. While a health scare prevented him from being drafted, he has already turned heads as an free agent signing for the New York Giants.

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Addition to watch: With three scholarship tight ends returning, there probably are not enough snaps to go around for 2019 signee Nik Ognenovic (6-foot-5, 228 pounds, freshman) to play a significant role this fall, but he appears to have the talent to contribute down the road or in the event of injury to the veterans ahead of him.

Other additions: None

Under the radar: With pressure on the passing game to improve and questions still facing the wide receivers outside of Lynn Bowden, there’s room for a tight end to step up and earn a spot as a frequent target of quarterback Terry Wilson. Upshaw is probably behind Rigg and Bates as a blocker, but his pass-catching ability could force him onto the field anyway. A knee injury kept him off the field for most of his redshirt season, but he’s reported to be at full strength for camp.

“He can run, he can stretch the field,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “He’s a guy that you can stay in 11 personnel and you can still go vertical. And he’s a target that when you get a mismatch or you get a linebacker and you feel like he’s covered, you can still throw it on him.”

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Camp questions: While Marrow, UK’s coach least afraid to hype up players in interviews, may be ready to declare the tight ends better than a year ago, replacing Conrad’s production and leadership remains a difficult task. Conrad played through injuries for most of his UK career, and given Rigg’s and Upshaw’s own injury history durability may be a concern as their workload increases.

Will an increased emphasis on the passing game make the tight ends more of a consistent option as receivers? But will Conrad’s blocking ability be missed as Gran breaks in a new set of running backs? There is no shortage of potential for this group, but most of it remains untested.

Jon Hale:jahale@courier-journal.com; Twitter:@JonHale_CJ. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today:courier-journal.com/jonh.