By LARRY VAUGHT
He had just 16 catches for 286 yards and four scores in 2017 before missing the final three games with a foot injury. Yet not only is tight end C.J. Conrad being counted on as a pivotal player in the Kentucky offense, he’s already projected to be one of the first tight ends picked in the 2019 NFL draft.
In his career, he has 50 receptions for 697 yards — 14 yards per catch — and nine touchdowns. But as much as some Kentucky fans have wanted to see the ball go his way more, Conrad has filled his role as a dominating blocker the last two years for Benny Snell and others.
ESPN has Conrad projected as the first tight end in the 2019 draft ahead of Tyler Petite (USC), Tommy Sweeney (Boston College), Foster Moreau (LSU) and Matt Sokol (Michigan State). Other projections have him as the second or third tight end picked anywhere from round two to round four. But a tight end has been taken in the first round three times in the last five NFL drafts.
The 6-5, 245-pound Conrad could become the first UK tight end drafted since Jacob Tamme in 2008. Like Tamme, he has soft hands and deceptive speed (4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash).
Conrad was limited to non-contact drills in spring practice to make sure he’s fully ready to go when the 2018 season opens. While many players would have been happy to leave spring practices early, Conrad was not. He missed the contact and work.
“That kid is a competitor. He will be back 110 percent in June. We just couldn’t take any chances with him,” UK tight ends coach Vince Marrow said.
Marrow is not surprised that Conrad has already been named to several preseason all-SEC teams as well as listed high in mock drafts.
“He is one of the top five tight ends in the country and the NFL thinks the same thing just off the way they are ranking him right now. He could catch 40 or 50 balls. He’s catching 20 balls but what people are missing is how good he can block,” Marrow said.
“He can go to the next level and whichever team drafts him, he can catch 30, 40 or 50 balls. He’s that good. When he is all the way healthy, I think he is the best in the SEC.”
Marrow said Conrad could easily catch 50 passes this year if that’s how Kentucky wanted to set up the offense. Instead, Conrad’s best value is his versatility.
“He does so much. He is valuable in pass protection, the run game. If C.J. went to a school where they just threw the ball a lot, he would catch 60 balls (a year),” Marrow said. “He’s that good. What he does for us is very important. When we lost him after the Georgia game, it showed in our offense. He can do so many things and we scheme things in our offense for him.”
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