The Bengals' 2017 season doesn't begin until September 10th, but don't tell that to tight end C.J. Uzomah.
On New Year's Day, he got the calendar year off to a flying start when he caught his first career touchdown pass in a season-ending win over Baltimore.
"It was something that I was hoping to get out of the way earlier but I was elated to end the season with a touchdown catch and a victory," said Uzomah. "I felt like that was an unbelievable way to start the year. We come back knowing that we won our first game of 2017."
The 24-year-old played an increased role last year as he finished with 25 catches for 234 yards (9.4 ypc), despite missing five games with a calf injury.
"I have some things to work on – blocking assignments and being fundamentally sound in everything that I do – but I felt like I really came along in my second year," said Uzomah. "In my first year I thought that I was timid and played a little slower not knowing where everybody was going to be. But last year I was able to unload and kind of relax, let loose, and have fun out there."
Since an injured back limited Pro Bowler Tyler Eifert to eight games last season, it was largely up to Uzomah and fellow 2015 draft pick Tyler Kroft to carry the load at the tight end position.
"It was just next man up," said Uzomah. "That's the mentality that we have. We understand that when one person goes down, somebody else has to step up. Whoever is next in line has to know what to do."
Uzomah, by his own admission, remains a work in progress after playing in a spread offense at Auburn that did not include a conventional tight end.
"I'm trying to work on my hands – whether it's as a blocker or getting off the jam," C.J. told me. "I'm working on my hips a little bit too. One thing that (tight ends) Coach (Jonathan) Hayes is emphasizing with me is hat placement for blocks. He says your hands and feet have improved tremendously but work on getting your hat where it's supposed to be and everything else will come into place. Those are the main three things that I am working on.
"I've also been working with Ben (Creamer) from Ignition APG with the boxing and hand fighting and he does a great job with that. I did it a little bit last year but not as much as I will this upcoming year. I think that helps tremendously and translates to the field a lot."
In addition to the hard work he's put in this offseason, Uzomah has indulged his passion for travel.
"I ended up going to Dublin and Amsterdam," he said. "My girlfriend is in the Master's program at Auburn so she went to Dublin and I met her in Amsterdam after her program was over. Then we went back to Dublin for St. Patrick's Day which was absolutely insane. That was a nice thing to check off the bucket list for sure. I also went to Colorado a few times and Jackson Hole in Wyoming. I went to Boston for a little bit. I kind of traveled all over to see my friends and explore the world."
Having the time and resources to travel is one of the benefits of being an NFL player – a career that Uzomah wished for from an early age.
"I've been playing football since I was six," he said. "So getting that phone call saying that you've been drafted was a dream come true. I've been watching the NFL my whole life thinking, 'Oh man, I want to be the guy on that field having the whole city behind my back.' I'm embracing it and it's a great opportunity."
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