Why Gator Bowl could be first step in Keaton Upshaw starring in new Kentucky offense

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – The era of the tight end may be coming to Kentucky football. Just maybe not in time for the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl after all.

“It’s like being a governor of a state and then you become the president,” tight ends coach and temporary play-caller Vince Marrow said Tuesday. “You’re all about your state, and then you’ve got to worry about the whole country. That’s how it is with the offense now. I want to throw to the tight ends, but we also got to look at the bigger picture, what’s going to make the offense go. I’m excited about that.”

With former offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw fired after the conclusion of the regular season and new offensive coordinator Liam Coen still working with the Los Angeles Rams through their NFL playoff run, Marrow has been tabbed by UK coach Mark Stoops to lead a group effort among the remaining offensive coaches for the bowl game.

Marrow, with input from Stoops and the other coaches, will call plays against NC State. They will use the playbook left over from Gran’s offense.

Excitement about Coen’s offense among players, recruits and fans is high, but Kentucky will not begin installing that scheme until spring practice. Among the players with the most to be excited about the new offense is Marrow’s position group.

“They’re a vital part of this whole thing, not just in the run game,” Coen said of the tight ends at his introductory Zoom news conference. “The play-action pass, the screen game will be huge, the screen game off of the play-action pass. All of that stuff in trying to get the ball into the hands of as many players as we can.

More:Kentucky football hires Rams assistant Liam Coen as new offensive coordinator

“It’s great to have skill on the outside. Love those guys, get those balls into your playmakers’ hands as much as possible, but we all know there are mismatches. There are matchups that you can take advantage of that aren’t just out there. Cornerback on a receiver. Well hey, let’s get a linebacker on a tight end.”

While the Rams’ roster lacks an elite tight end of the caliber of Kansas City star Travis Kelce, Los Angeles is the only NFL team with two players among the top 25 tight ends in receiving yards.

Former Western Kentucky tight end Tyler Higbee ranks 17th among tight ends with 480 receiving yards. He is tied for 10th among tight ends with five touchdown catches. Rams tight end Gerald Everett has added 39 catches for 392 yards and one touchdown.

“The NFL is such a matchup league,” Coen said. “When you play man-to-man, you get matchups all over the place, and you have to be able to win one-on-one at this level. I believe that’s at any level. So to be able to utilize the tight ends in some of the keeper game, the bootlegs, utilizing the backs in some of the screen game and some of the drop-back game … I believe that can definitely help the offense and get the ball into some of the playmakers’ hands.”

Info:Three things to know about NC State, Kentucky football's TaxSlayer Gator Bowl opponent

That philosophy should be music to the ears of one of Kentucky’s most promising offensive playmakers.

Little about the Wildcat offense went right in 2020, but the emergence of third-year sophomore tight end Keaton Upshaw was one of the few bright spots.

Upshaw finished the regular season with 14 catches for 173 yards and three touchdowns. Nine of his catches and two of his touchdowns came in the final four games.

“He’s playing faster and letting plays come to him,” Stoops said of Upshaw. “There’s times for big men where they may be looking a little too early for the ball. We have to play with the athleticism and the speed that he has and he’s only a sophomore. He’s gotten better with every opportunity.”

In a recent interview with the Courier Journal, Coen’s father, Tim, a former Division III and high school head coach, quickly pointed to Kentucky’s tight ends as personnel that had impressed on a quick review of the Wildcat film.

Kentucky is also set to return sophomore Brenden Bates and redshirt freshman Nik Ognenovic to the position. Senior Justin Rigg, UK’s third-leading receiver could come back to school thanks to the NCAA granting all players an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic. Four-star Bowling Green tight end Jordan Dingle is one of the crown jewels of the 2021 class signed earlier this month.

“I’ve seen some of these tight ends on tape and I’ve seen the backs on tape a little bit. Playmakers, for sure,” Coen said, noting how the Rams’ offense works best when it spreads the ball to as many players as possible in the passing game. “… The quarterback should act like a point guard. Not just throwing it to receivers. Let’s get the ball into some of our playmakers hands.”

Upshaw and the rest of Kentucky’s tight ends could thrive in Coen’s offense next season.

Don’t be surprised if they get a jump start on that process in the bowl game, even as Marrow says all the things one would expect from a play-caller about offensive balance.

Recruiting:Bowling Green tight end Jordan Dingle commits to Kentucky football's 2021 class

“If you would have seen the first two bowl practices, you would think it was just a 7-on-7 with the tight ends and the quarterbacks,” Stoops said with a laugh earlier this month. “He’s definitely working on getting his tight ends the football, that’s for sure."

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ