Having a play-making tight end is a quality that not all teams have, and a very important feature in a program that strives for a balanced offense like Virginia’s.
That’s why rising junior Jake McGee could be ready for a breakout season in 2013. As a sophomore, who started only three games in ’12, McGee still finished sixth on the team in receiving yardage and actually ended up with the fifth-most TD catches in a single season (five) by any tight end in UVa history.
With the starting job seemingly his to lose this fall, McGee is working hard this spring to get a jump on the spot.
Essentially, his spring has been all about learning the nuances of the new offensive system brought in by new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, and by trying to impress new tight ends coach Tom O’Brien, who just happened to be head coach at N.C. State and Boston College for the past 16 years.
The concept of the offense hasn’t really changed that much. Virginia has kept its philosophy of playing physical, power football with an emphasis on the running game. Still, there will be balance and that’s where McGee has to flourish, not only as a play-making receiving tight end, but also as a physical blocker.
“There’s some new personnel and a new playbook, and even if it’s a similar [offense], it’s still a big adjustment to new terminology,” McGee said after a recent practice. “It’s coming along very well.”
Naturally, spring practice, especially when there are new coordinators (and Virginia has three of ‘em), is all about learning, all about repetition. And, of course, getting to know the new coaches.
Working for O’Brien, who is also the team’s associate head coach for offense, isn’t exactly like working for any ordinary position coach and McGee is keenly aware of that fact.
“He stays on you, keeps you focused, which is good,” McGee said of playing under O’Brien’s watchful eyes.
What he must prove most is that he can block with the best of them. He doesn’t want to be labeled a one-dimensional tight end, who can make spectacular catches but may have shortcomings as a blocker.
With good speed and athleticism and with the jumping ability to go high in the air on a fade route, McGee isn’t your typical tight end. He could actually split out from the line of scrimmage like a wide receiver because he has those kinds of skills.
Last season, the 6-foot-5, 235-pounder hauled in 28 receptions for 374 yards and the 5 TDs. His highlight game came early against Penn State when he caught four passes for 99 yards and the winning score with 1:28 to play. All four of his receptions in that game were for either a first down or a score.
The 28 catches were the 15th-most in a single season by a Wahoo tight end. His 374 receiving yards were the 13th most in program history for a player at his position, and the TDs, of course, tied for fifth-most.
Not bad for a sophomore who had to fight for playing time. Those numbers earned him All-ACC honorable mention.
“Right now, the offensive coaches are just seeing who can do what, what we have, what we don’t have,” McGee said.
He’s hoping to show that he can block. His rep has been that of a guy who can catch anything, but when it comes to blocking, well …
“Yeah, I keep that in the back of my mind, and try to keep a smile on,” McGee said. “You never like hearing something like that. All I can do is show otherwise, but until I do that, well, that’s what people are going to say. I want to be good at all phases as a tight end.”
Head coach Mike London has said over the last year that it wouldn’t hurt for McGee to add a little size.
He’s gained a few pounds and is up to 240. He’s not sold on putting on weight.
“[The coaches] say that (about adding weight), but if I lose some speed, I think they’ll be yelling at me about that next,” McGee chuckled.
He has already drawn early comparisons to former UVa great tight end Heath Miller, a first-team All-American and first-round NFL Draft choice by the Pittsburgh Steelers. McGee takes the comparisons as a compliment although he hasn’t yet earned a memorable nickname like Miller’s “Big Money.”
Maybe this fall he will cash in.
Meanwhile, London said that while this Saturday’s Spring Game (1 p.m., ESPN3) will actually be played in a game format, it won’t be the Cavaliers’ last practice. It will be the last look that fans and media get at the team until August.
With so many family members coming in for the Saturday game, London will give his players the rest of the weekend to hang out. On Monday, they’ll gather to watch the spring game film and then practice on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday to conclude spring drills.
“What we’ll do next week is take an early look at three opponents,” London said. “On Wednesday, we’ll work against BYU. On Friday, we’ll work on Oregon. Then, on Saturday, we’ll pick out an opponent for some specialty-type practice, like against Georgia Tech because they run the option offense.”