C.J. Conrad came into his senior year at Keystone already armed with a Division I football scholarship to Kentucky and a conference championship.
Don’t expect him to feel satisfied.
The 6-foot-5 tight end and safety used that scholarship and last year’s three-way tie with Buckeye and Black River atop the Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division as motivation to have his best season yet.
So far, all the hard work and willingness to do whatever it takes has paid off in a 2-0 start for the Wildcats, their best in seven years and a dramatic turnaround from the 0-10 season Conrad experienced as a freshman.
“The reason why I committed so early was so I could focus on my senior year of football,” Conrad said. “That really pushed pause on the whole recruiting process. Now I don’t have to worry about who’s watching me. I just focus on playing football with the guys I grew up with.
“Getting a piece of that conference championship last year was big. Just having that experience with the guys on the team last year was great. But it also fueled us in the offseason.
“We got that share of the title, now we want more. We want the conference title all to ourselves and we also want to make our first playoff appearance ever and host a game.”
Conrad, ever the team player, has added returning punts to his duties and has shown he has what it takes to make big plays in that department.
“That’s new for me this year,” Conrad said. “We had Tyler Gullett back there the past two years. But the coaches wanted someone back there with sure hands and speed. At first, Brandon Buttolph was the speed guy and I was the sure-handed guy who was going to catch and make fair-catches. But once I got free into space, I realized that I could return.
“I returned my first punt 80 yards, and ever since then, it’s turned into something I’ll do every week. So now we have a dual-threat back there with me and Brandon. I love it.”
Conrad has caught 11 passes for 220 yards (a 20-yards average) and three touchdowns. He’s added 118 punt return yards for 338 all-purpose yards. He’s averaged 39.3 yards on three punt returns and also added a 2-point conversion to give him 20 points on the season.
“Special teams are such a momentum thing,” Conrad said. “If something good happens on special teams, that can spark you. As a leader on this team, that gives me the opportunity to spark the team in a good way.”
Conrad is athletic enough to go from playing tight end to safety on defense to being able to provide a big-play threat in the return game. Plus, Conrad spent last year playing defensive end, meaning Wildcats coach Rob Clarico knows he can move from the secondary to the front seven in a pinch if need be.
“He’s a special athlete,” Clarico said. “He breaks the mold in a lot of ways.”
Conrad started off playing wide receiver, but made the switch to tight end after hearing from some Division I coaches that it was a better fit for him.
“To me, wide receiver didn’t do much for me,” Conrad said. “But as the recruiting process went on, I wanted to be a tight end. I never was in a three-point stance before. My blocking was underrated and that was something I needed to improve on. I know I can catch balls, but my biggest thing was to work on blocking because that’s something I have to do at next level.
“The running game relies on me a lot because of my one-on-one blocking ability. Anything I can do to help the team I will, and I’m glad I can do it both with my hands and with my blocking abilities.”
Clarico said Conrad often volunteered to go with the offensive linemen in practice to do line drills instead of going with the receivers.
“The first thing you have to do to be a great tight end is to be a willing blocker,” Clarico said. “That’s something I want to give C.J. a lot of credit for. … He knows he can catch the ball, but he wants to be a better blocker.
“He’s worked hard in the weight room to get stronger. He knows he can be a force in that department and he’s willing to put the effort in. And, his blocking, while being his most underrated skill, has been his most improved this year.”
Conrad will graduate early and enroll at Kentucky in the winter. He said he plans to play basketball for as long as he can before he leaves for Lexington.
The Wildcats host 1-1 Galion tonight. The Tigers, who are in Division IV, Region 12, with Keystone, have had the Wildcats’ number.
“We’ve never beaten Galion before,” Conrad said. “We played them every year and they’ve gotten the best of us all three times. When you’re winning games like we are right now, we need a game like this where it’s going to be a grind.
“It’s nice to be a leader and tell the guys that it’s going to be a fight. We’ve been working hard for it and it should be really good.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.