The way Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor tells it, sophomore Jake McGee was standing underneath a mural of the greatest tight end in Cavaliers history one day last year when he made a grand statement: He wanted to become the next Heath Miller.
McGee remembered it a little differently this week, that he simply told Lazor, “I’ll try my best to at least get close to what he did here.” But either way, McGee is off to a good start.
Through two games, he has already emerged as perhaps the best receiving tight end Virginia has seen since Miller finished his record-setting college career and was drafted in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft. But it’s the way McGee has announced his presence that has many around Charlottesville buzzing about what he might do next.
In Virginia’s season-opening win over Richmond, McGee’s first career catch turned out to be an diving grab with just his left hand, a play that landed on highlight reels across the country. McGee followed that up last weekend by somehow coming down with a 44-yard reception in which he trapped the ball against his shoulders on third and 16 and the Cavaliers trailing Penn State late in the fourth quarter.
Six plays later, he hauled in the game-winning touchdown, part of an afternoon that saw him finish with four catches for 99 yards.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve really been surprised, because I was confident in what I could do. It was just getting the chance to do it,” McGee said. “Some of the catches have been a little, I’d say, crazier than I thought they’d be.”
McGee’s exploits in games haven’t surprised his teammates, who watched him dominate during spring practice and into fall training camp. But it’s easy to forget McGee almost didn’t end up at Virginia, even though his grandfather lettered in baseball in 1960 and he grew up a Cavaliers fan.
Like Miller, McGee was a high school quarterback and planned to play the position when he first arrived at Virginia. He starred at the Collegiate School, the alma mater of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and even beat Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco in state championship games for football and basketball when Rocco was at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg.
“I can only say so much or the ball might not come my way,” McGee joked before explaining the connection he and Rocco enjoy on the field because of their signal-calling backgrounds. “I understand what goes through his head a little bit, and as he’s rolling what he wants to see from a receiver.”
But coaches from Football Bowl Subdivision schools mostly ignored McGee during the recruiting process, including former Virginia Coach Al Groh. Instead, he committed to play for Coach Mike London at Richmond — until London was hired to replace Groh in December 2009.
With scholarships available at Virginia, it quickly paved the way for McGee to become a Cavalier. After arriving on campus last fall, and noticing the glut of quarterbacks on Virginia’s roster, McGee then decided to make the move to tight end and has since added 35 pounds to his 240-pound frame.
London said this week it was clear to him that McGee was a “Division I-A prospect” all along. He was just misjudged because he went to a small private school.
“I think his best football is in front of him, and at the same time, I think he can be as good as he wants to be,” London said.
London and Lazor continue to find more ways to get McGee on the field, especially now that his blocking has improved. Learning the finer points of battling in the trenches has been the hardest part of transitioning from quarterback to tight end, McGee said, because he never did it in high school.
He’s currently splitting time with senior Paul Freedman and junior Jeremiah Mathis, but London said this week McGee’s performances merit more playing time.
These days, McGee is called “The Kid” around Virginia’s locker room, a nickname coined by freshman wide receiver Canaan Severin in reference to McGee’s trash talk while playing video games. He’s the life of the party, linebacker Steve Greer said, and “can make anyone laugh.”
But in an offense that features three wide receivers known for speed more than size, it’s McGee’s combination of height (he’s 6 feet 4) and athleticism that have turned him into a popular weapon on the field. He’s too fast to be covered by linebackers and too big to be slowed by defensive backs, the sort of assets that earned Miller the nickname “Big Money” during his days at Virginia.
When McGee was asked this week about his 40-yard dash time, however, he couldn’t remember it.
“Hopefully just fast enough to get behind the safeties,” he said with a smile.