If nothing else has been made clear through the first two weeks of Kentucky football’s preseason practices, fans can rest assured that new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello loves his tight ends.
“I really believe there’s three or four or five in that room that are going to play on Sundays,” he declared after the first practice.
Entering camp, the depth chart already looked crowded. Returners Brenden Bates, Keaton Upshaw, Izayah Cummings and Jordan Dingle brought a combined 84 games, 14 starts, 51 catches and eight touchdowns to the room.
There did not appear to be any snaps available for a newcomer.
Someone forgot to tell freshman Josh Kattus that he was destined for a redshirt season though.
“I love him,” Scangarello said. “I’m a big fan of Josh. He’s got a long road to go, but he’s got some special qualities. He’s kind of become a favorite, I think, among the offense too as a young player. He’s nasty, plays hard, plays to the whistle.
“I think he aggravates the defensive guys at times, which I love. He’s got a little something to him that’s going to make him a really good football player here.”
With Upshaw battling a minor hamstring issue as he worked his way back from missing all of last season due to injury, Kattus was already receiving some first-team reps in certain packages at UK’s Fan Day open practice three days into preseason camp. Kattus arrived on campus with a reputation as a physical blocker, but he made an early statement with multiple catches during the 11-on-11 periods that afternoon.
It quickly became apparent that Kattus was not only a temporary injury-replacement, either.
“He’s turned heads ever since he got here,” quarterback Will Levis said. “Obviously, not the biggest dude at the tight end position, but he’s got a really good feel for the game. He’s a smart kid, physical kid, brings the energy.
“... I think he’ll get some burn this year. He’s a good player. I trust him. He’s as prepared as any of the freshmen we have going into practice.”
The son of former Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets tight end Eric Kattus, Josh recorded 42 catches for 553 yards and one touchdown as a senior at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, the same program that produced Bates.
The recruiting services rated the 6-foot-4, 232-pound Kattus as a consensus three-star prospect, letting him fly under the radar in a 2022 Kentucky signing class that ended up as the highest-ranked in the Mark Stoops era.
Even tight ends coach Vince Marrow, Kattus’s primary recruiter to Kentucky, acknowledges he was uncertain of how quickly Kattus would make an impact as a pass-catcher in college.
So how does a freshman few expected to play right away make such an early impact?
“He’s tough, he plays hard,” Upshaw said.
“We love him out there,” Cummings added. “He plays hard. Every rep he’s going to make it count. We just love seeing him work.”
Kattus’s physicality and energy have drawn the attention — and occasional ire — of Kentucky defenders already.
But his willingness to go the extra mile in a situation where many freshmen naturally defer to older teammates has brought a level of respect, too. Outside linebacker Jordan Wright remembered one practice where he beat Kattus on a pass rush and the freshman tight end was visibly disappointed in himself. Wright instructed him to keep his head up and not let one mistake overshadow his vast potential.
The next day Kattus took that direction to heart and held his own in another one-on-one matchup with Wright, a super senior expected to be one of Kentucky’s best pass rushers.
“You want (the energy) because that’s going to give the older guys a better chance of coming every day to work hard,” Wright said. “If you don’t have anybody behind you to push you, you’re probably just out there lollygagging.
“I love how he came in first day and he’s still consistent with it.”
Finding enough snaps for four tight ends was a challenge even before Kattus emerged. Scangarello has made no secret of his desire to make heavy use of formations with multiple tight ends on the field at the same time, but competition remains fierce.
Asked if he had seen any separation among the group this week, Scangarello again applauded the depth.
Then he again singled out Kattus as a “gem” making his presence known.
“Usually when you get some freshman tight ends that come in here, you’ve got some pretty boys used to being bigger than everybody and catching the balls,” Bates said. “Kattus can catch the ball very well, but Kattus has that nasty mentality. I don’t know if that’s a Moeller High School thing or not, but Kattus is really, really physical.
“Brings the thump, doesn’t care who he’s going against. He’ll bring that physicality, and that’s what you need to be able to play in this room. I think that’s why he’s turning so many heads. … He’s a youngling, baby faced and he’s bringing the thump.”