Jake McGee said there weren’t expectations on him.
Before the 9:08 mark of the second quarter against Richmond, anyway.
The Virginia tight end was a relative unknown to outsiders of the program on Sept. 1, 2012, when he made a cut to the sideline and reached out his left paw.
He had no career catches to his name. His most significant contribution was a forced fumble on a kickoff against Indiana his freshman season.
But when McGee’s extended hand met Michael Rocco’s downward spiral, everything changed.
A big-play star was born.
“It sort of relieved a lot of stress because it was my first catch,” McGee said of the 17-yard highlight he made while sliding into UR’s bench. “You heard the crowd and all that, so it just put a smile on my face.
“From there on out, I was all ready to go.”
From there, McGee would make 27 more receptions. It seemed like all of them led the sports segments of newscasts.
- There was the 44-yarder on a third-and-16 against Penn State in which he managed to hold on despite falling on his back and having half of PSU’s secondary trying to rip the 8 and 3 off his jersey.
- Just over three minutes later, there was the game-winning 6-yard touchdown catch on a third-and-goal in which he slid into a quiet spot just over the goal line.
- There was the 19-yard score against Georgia Tech in which he hurdled a Yellow Jacket defensive back on his way into the end zone.
- There was the dramatic, game-winning 10-yard TD against Miami with six seconds remaining in which he glided through the back of the end zone, leaped, caught the football and landed both feet before taking a punishing blow out-of-bounds.
When asked for a favorite of his ’12 collection, McGee responded by saying: “I mean they all sort of, not run together, but it’s just ...” He trailed off with a grin.
It was a fun season for the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder. McGee went from off the radar to landing an All-ACC honorable mention nod.
The encore begins in less than two weeks when BYU rolls into Scott Stadium for the opener. If McGee entered his sophomore season as a relative unknown, he’s got the target on his back as a junior.
He’s a John Mackey Award candidate. He’s on Athlon Sports’ preseason All-ACC second-team.
He’s got more responsibilities, too.
“The biggest thing is he’s gained weight,” UVa head coach Mike London said of McGee, who weighed 235 pounds last season. “You don’t want to be a one-dimensional tight end. ... You’re going to try to block college defensive ends or linebackers, that’s a mismatch.
“He worked at putting weight on. He worked hard to get the muscle mass needed to play on the line if needed and still have the skill necessary to play off the line, kind of like that H-back position. ... Ability-wise, I think he has as good ability as any tight end that I’ve seen.”
There were certainly flashes of that position talent in 2012, but it came simply in the pass-catching form. McGee’s numbers — 28 receptions, 374 yards, five scores — were relatively modest, but so were his snaps.
The Richmond native was a situational player while the other tight ends on the depth chart — 6-6, 245-pound Colter Phillips, 6-6, 260-pound Paul Freedman — handled more of the blocking duties.
But Phillips and Freedman are gone, now. McGee’s stepped into the do-it-all role.
“I’d say I’ve improved a lot,” McGee said. “I’m confident in saying that I can be an every-down blocker, every-down player. It’s taken work and I’ve put a lot of time in this summer and spring and winter, really since last season.
“Now being asked to do it a lot more with the graduation of Paul and Colter, I’m ready to go with it.”
McGee’s teammates are witnesses to the advancement in his game.
“You look at Jake on tape, you’ll see Jake knocking some guys out,” said junior running back Kevin Parks. “He can do the blocking. He makes knockout blocks on special teams.”
“It’s an easy progression for him,” said senior guard Luke Bowanko. “He’s a super talented kid. He’s a great basketball player, great softball player. He’s going to be fine. He just needs to put the weight on, which he has, and want to do it. Get his nose dirty a little bit. I think he’s embraced that. As much as he wants to say he hasn’t, he has.”
One-handed snags. Clutch touchdowns. Blocking.
Jake McGee, who has missed portions of camp with a minor shoulder stinger, has expectations now.
“Last year, I had a good spring and personally I knew what I could do football-wise,” McGee said. “But there weren’t expectations on me. Nobody really knew about me, so it was a fun situation because I got to sort of, as the season went, become more of a name in doing things on the field, which became fun.
“This year I’m excited because there’s a lot on me for what I’m expected to do this season. I’m excited to compete and get back out there.”