Turnarounds are quickly becoming C.J. Conrad’s specialty. There are plenty of parallels between the senior tight end’s collegiate career at Kentucky and his time at Keystone High School.
The Wildcats were 0-10 his freshman year in high school, improved to 5-5 and then went 7-3 before finishing 8-2 his senior season and making their first appearance in the playoffs.
Kentucky — also the Wildcats — found itself in a similar situation. The program needed a jumpstart from a strong senior class to begin the turnaround. Conrad’s class has provided just that, taking the program from 5-7 in 2015, to consecutive 7-5 seasons and culminating with a 9-3 record this year.
The success has paid off for both the Wildcats and Conrad. Kentucky will face Penn State in the Citrus Bowl today at 1 p.m., the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl game in two decades. And while it will be Conrad’s final game with the team, he’s drawing serious looks from the NFL and is a safe bet to have his name called on draft day.
“I believe he really changed the culture of this program,” said Vince Marrow, Kentucky’s tight ends coach, recruiting coordinator and NFL liaison.
“Having him on board with some of the other guys was probably the best class we ever had. I’d put C.J. in the top three as far as most important guys who’ve changed this program. It’s just a blessing to have a kid like him. He really played a big part in changing this culture.”
Conrad enjoyed a stellar career with Keystone, developing into one of the top tight ends in Ohio. He finished his career with 180 catches for 2,436 yards and 32 total touchdowns, also scoring twice on punt returns. He caught 55 passes for 752 yards and 10 touchdowns his senior year.
The Wildcats won a share of the Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division his junior year, but missed the playoffs. Keystone was unable to defend its title in Conrad’s senior year, finishing second to Buckeye, but notched one more win overall and made it to the postseason for the first time in school history. He capped his career with a nine-catch, 114-yard performance in a 40-32 playoff loss to Bellevue.
Marrow believed Conrad would be an instant contributor from the day he made him an offer.
“I knew he was the right kid,” he said. “I was looking for the right kid to come in and be a starter and contribute. Watching his family, how they worked, I had a feeling this could be the guy who could impact the position. He was my guy from Day 1. I knew exactly he was going to be that guy.”
While Conrad was clearly a prolific receiver, Marrow made it clear that his ticket to the NFL would come only if he developed into a blocker. The coach he saw that Conrad had the toughness necessary to take on the challenge.
It didn’t take long for Conrad to buy in, but it did take some time for him to bulk up. He said adding strength was what helped him the most. That, and developing an offensive lineman’s mentality when it came to technique — staying low, delivering a really good punch and making sure his footwork was sound.
Conrad said he got pushed around a bit his freshman year. And while his receiving numbers weren’t as eye-popping as they were in high school — just 15 catches for 149 yards and one touchdown — they were enough to lead all freshman tight ends in the Southeastern Conference.
“I’m all about the team,” Conrad said. “It’s bigger than me here. I knew we were turning around a program and I was willing to do whatever it took to start winning games here and change this program. Whatever role they gave me, I did it and I did it 100 percent.”
Conrad caught 19 passes for 262 yards and four touchdowns his sophomore year as the team’s fourth-leading receiver. He was the first tight end to record three receiving touchdowns in a game since Dicky Lyons in 2007 and the first tight end to pile up 100 receiving yards in a game since Jacob Tamme in 2007.
The SEC took notice. Conrad said by his junior year, blocking felt natural to him, but the league was also placing an added focus on keeping him contained as a receiver.
“I started to feel defenses shift towards me,” Conrad said. “They weren’t letting me get some of these easy touchdowns in the red zones. They called out my number, followed me at all times, so I had to go back to practice and work on some technique.”
He also went to the film room and studied from the best. He said there wasn’t one particular tight end he watched, but looked closely at former Dallas Cowboy Jason Witten because of their similarities in speed and size and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce because of his crisp route running.
Conrad finished second on the team in receiving yards with 286 on 16 catches despite having his season cut short thanks to a Lisfranc injury to his left foot against Georgia. He had surgery that November and missed the team’s finale against Louisville and the Music City Bowl against Northwestern.
“That was really difficult for me,” Conrad said. “It’s something I’ve never really been through before because growing up I never had any injuries like that. My family, coaches and teammates were great throughout. I got back to the weight room and worked on getting bigger, I needed to put on more weight. I think that helped me a lot this season.”
Conrad came back stronger, putting on 10 pounds without sacrificing speed. He recorded career highs in catches (29) and yards (297), but more importantly showed off the blocking skills that NFL scouts are looking for.
While he might not have dazzling stats — 79 catches for 994 yards and 12 touchdowns – for today’s NFL, but those touchdowns came in big moments.
“People know and recognize C.J.,” Marrow said. “They game plan to take away C.J. out of our offense. You look at our yards per catch, people started diagramming their defense to watching him. I think it’s frustrated for him not catching as many balls, but the balls he caught were really important catches in our game.”
One of those catches against Missouri in October. The Wildcats were still in contention to win the SEC East, but trailed by five points with one untimed down from the 2-yard line to go for a win. Kentucky called up a play for Conrad, who delivered a walk-off touchdown catch.
The Wildcats went on to lose to Georgia and Tennessee in back-to-back weeks before rebounding with wins over Middle Tennessee State and Louisville to finish 9-3 and earn a New Year’s Day bowl invite.
Conrad’s play has definitely not gone unnoticed. Marrow said he is one of the first three players NFL teams ask about when scouting the Wildcats.
Marrow said he believes Cleveland, Dallas, Miami and the Chargers are interested, but he added that many teams that need tight end help have taken a look at him. He believes Conrad will be drafted.
“He just needs to stay in shape and be ready to run,” Marrow said. “Teams are going to be very surprised at how athletic he is. He’s going to run very well. I think this kid is going to play a very long time in the league. It’s hard to find that guy who’s willing to be that blocker and also athletic enough to catch balls and run down seams.”
When Conrad’s career with Kentucky ends today, Marrow said he will leave a leadership void that won’t easily be filled — on or off the field.
In the locker room, Marrow said Conrad has become one of the core players responsible for the turnaround and a player many of the younger guys look up to.
He’s made just as big of an impact in the surrounding community. Every Tuesday he visits the Kentucky Children’s Hospital and spends time with the patients there, which includes room to room visits talking with the children and their families. He also joins in for arts and crafts.
Conrad said he’s been able to make some interesting things with the kids, including slime and snow.
He was named the winner of the 2018 Pop Warner National College Football Award, given to a player who has made a difference on the field, in the classroom and in the community, and who is a role model to young athletes.
“I means a lot to me,” Conrad said. “I didn’t do this for an award or anything. I wanted to put a smile on kids faces. But it did mean a lot to me to be recognized. I’m going to continue doing this with or without recognition.”
Conrad graduated in December with a degree in communications. Marrow added that the comparisons to Witten go beyond the football field, saying that he is confident wherever Conrad winds up he will continue to make an impact within that community just like Witten, who was named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2012 for his impact on the Dallas community.
“He’s going to be very missed here,” Marrow said. “I was very hard on C.J. early, but as I watched him grow as a young man, I gave him more responsibilities. We really respect C.J.’s opinion. He’s going to be missed because you can’t even put a price on his leadership. He’s so intelligent and a guy that you just really want to be around.”
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