How Kentucky football's offensive menu can feed deep, talented group of tight ends
LEXINGTON — In hindsight, Vince Marrow had set the bar too low.
Going into Saturday's scrimmage, the Kentucky football tight ends coach made “a little B.S. bet,” he said, with his position group: Catch six passes in Saturday’s scrimmage and a future dinner was on Marrow.
As much faith as Marrow has in his room, deep with talented tight ends, he had reason to doubt it would get a half-dozen catches in a single scrimmage. The Wildcats have a plethora of offensive weapons. The UK defense is loaded with linebackers who make matchups miserable.
Marrow figured his guys would need a pretty good day to get six receptions.
“They had six on the first two drives,” he said.
And kept going. Marrow was pretty sure the UK tight ends got to 13 catches. Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello estimated it was 15. Brenden Bates, a starter at tight end last season, thought it was 12.
The point is, it was more than six.
“Now (Marrow) owes us Jeff Ruby’s,” junior Izayah Cummings said. “We just got to get a date on that.”
The hope in the Kentucky camp is that the tight ends will keep feasting on the field all season.
And there’s no shortage of mouths to feed.
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The Wildcats are stocked with broad shoulders and good hands at tight end, loaded with prototype size, solid speed and blocking expertise.
“There's some really dynamic players in that room,” Scangarello said. “I don't know if there's a room that I'm more excited about or more happy with the depth, the talent and the types of players we have.”
There are five tight ends — seniors Bates and Keaton Upshaw, junior Cummings, redshirt freshman Jordan Dingle and true freshman Josh Kattus — who probably can expect to see snaps this season.
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It’s conceivable four of them could do it at once.
“I'm not going to tell you if we have anything like that in (the playbook) or not,” Bates said. “But yeah, it's definitely something I think is very realistic, especially with all we can do. That'd be really exciting to see. I'd love it. Maybe put me in at running back or something.”
Scangarello will have to get creative to use all his options.
Cummings caught 20 passes last season, Bates 11 and Dingle two. But the 6-foot-6 Upshaw was the tight end who seemed poised for a breakout year after catching 16 passes for 193 yards in 2020. Instead, he suffered a season-ending injury last summer.
He’s back now, paired with Bates and Cummings, who’s settling in at tight end after the former Male High School star moved from wide receiver.
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Dingle is a candidate to break out this season. And Kattus — a 6-4, 232-pound freshman who’s added muscle in the offseason — has been among the most buzzed-about Cats in fall camp.
“When I recruited him, I knew he was gonna be a good blocker,” said Marrow, also UK’s recruiting coordinator. “But what surprised me is how well he catches the ball and how well he’s picking up everything.”
If any coach can exploit the excess at tight end, it might be Scangarello, who spent last season as the quarterbacks coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, who consistently target tight ends and feature star George Kittle at the position.
When Kentucky hired Scangarello, Bates said he immediately thought “this is gonna be good for us” in the tight ends room. Bates had watched in December as Kittle dismantled his hometown Cincinnati Bengals in a narrow 49ers win, racking up 13 catches for 151 yards and a TD.
Scangarello “loves tight ends,” Cummings said, and the feeling so far has been mutual.
“They find different plays, different type of schemes that set up all of us to be great,” Upshaw said of UK’s offensive coaches. “So I feel like it works right into (our) good hands.”
Still, it’s a lot of hands.
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Cummings said there are three-tight-end sets and, like Bates, he alluded to Scangarello “talking about four” on the field at once. But one or two figures to be standard, and that’s going to leave some talent watching from the sidelines.
Marrow has praised his group for its collective unselfishness, Bates said, lauding the tight ends for supporting each other despite knowing they’re competing for finite snaps.
The expectation is that in Scangarello’s offense — and at the steakhouse — they’ll find a way to feed everyone.
“We are brothers in that room, and we certainly show it,” Bates said. “Whenever anyone makes a big-time play, we're not (saying), ‘Man, good job…’ and actually thinking, like, ‘…but that should be me out there.’ We are so happy for anybody’s individual success.”