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College football: Keystone's Conrad prepping for bowl game as Kentucky's starting tight end

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    C.J. Conrad hauls in a pass for the University of Kentucky during a game against Austin Peay in Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 19, 2016.



There’s an old saying in investing — timing is everything. The earlier your money starts working for you, the more you’ll make.

C.J. Conrad applied that to his collegiate football career.

The Keystone graduate made a decision to enroll at the University of Kentucky a semester early, taking care of what he needed to academically in high school to do so.

The result was that the sophomore has been able to see regular playing time in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the toughest conference in the country. And Saturday at 11 a.m., he’ll taste the fruits of his hard work when Kentucky faces Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

“You don’t just walk in the door and you’re a starter,” Conrad said. “This isn’t high school, this is big-time college football. That’s why I decided to enroll early. I got here and tried to stay as business as possible and work as hard as I can.

“That was big for me. Especially for me, coming from a small school like Keystone.”

It still wasn’t easy, Conrad found that out early. The first contact practice in spring ball was unlike anything he’d experienced in high school. But ultimately, getting the shock of how big the adjustment would be — both academically and athletically — out of the way early paved the way for him to take advantage of Kentucky being thin at tight end and looking for him to contribute early.

“I was on my back almost every other play,” Conrad said. “It’s crazy how far I came. I wasn’t getting pushed around like that in high school. I was super glad I got this out of the way early because I would have been a little discouraged going into fall camp getting put on my back like that.”

He had to adjust mentally, too. Conrad said the defenses are much more complex, especially in the SEC — a conference that has produced some of the best defense in college football historically, with teams such as Alabama, LSU and Florida.

Teams knew he was the young guy, perceiving him as the weak link.

But he also added a new skill set to his arsenal — run blocking. In high school, Conrad was known for his pass-catching ability. His senior year in 2014, he finished with 55 receptions for 752 yards and 12 total touchdowns, one rushing and one punt return.

He hasn’t come close to that one season in his two years combined — 31 catches for 397 yards and five touchdowns. But he has had some standout performances. Against New Mexico State in Week 3 he caught five passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns, including a 72-yard score. And in Week 4 of his freshman year he caught five passes for 55 yards and the go-ahead touchdown to beat Missouri.

While he doesn’t show up in the box score much, watch closer and he’ll be making a big block to spring one of Kentucky’s two 1,000-yard rushers — Stanley Williams or Benny Snell Jr. He prides himself in helping those guys combine for 2,192 yards and 20 touchdowns.

It didn’t take long for him to enjoy the feeling of making a big block. On his very first collegiate snap, against Louisiana Lafayette, Williams came off Conrad’s block and burst up field for a 75-yard touchdown.

“I always saw myself as a pass-catching tight end,” said Conrad, a communications major who hopes to play in the NFL. “My coach has done a great job. From the first day I walked into the door, I thought I was going to catch passes. He told me that’s not how it’s going to work. He told me if I wanted to play on Sundays, scouts are going to be looking to see if I can do both. So that’s why I really put a lot of my pride into it.

“In high school, I thought catching passes was the greatest feeling. But when a running back scores off of your block, I really enjoy that now. It’s kind of crazy what my game has developed into over the years.”

Contact Chris Sweeney at 329-7135 or Follow him @CSweeneyCT on Twitter.

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