Virginia’s tight ends proving to be a reliable option as Cavs try to kick-start offense


Tight end Jake McGee leads the Virginia football team with 11 receptions this season. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
September 18, 2013

Virginia tight ends Jake McGee and Zach Swanson decided to pull a prank when the Cavaliers held a bye-week scrimmage during practice last Friday.

Position coach Tom O’Brien was out on the road recruiting, so the two switched jerseys, with McGee donning No. 49 and Swanson sporting No. 83. It was Swanson’s idea because he always finds it fascinating how a player can “just look completely different wearing a different number.”

And lo and behold, a few plays in, McGee caught a touchdown pass that nobody really seemed to notice initially.

“Zach got a lot of credit, so it worked out for him,” McGee said with a laugh this week.

It underscores one of the few positive developments for Virginia’s offense through the first two games of the season. While many expected McGee to build on a breakout sophomore campaign this year, the Cavaliers appear to have a second tight end ready to make an impact in the passing game.

McGee leads Virginia with 11 catches for 62 yards and Swanson is right behind him with seven receptions for 64 yards.

Both tight ends conceded their production is largely the result of how defenses are handling Virginia’s offense right now, loading up to stop the run and providing help deep to stop the big play over the top. The Cavaliers currently have the fewest passing plays of more than 15 yards in the country, and London said this week they plan to use quarterback David Watford as a runner and call more downfield passing plays to compensate.

But through two games, there has been plenty of room for short or intermediate routes. Swanson still seem surprised a week later by how often Oregon left him and McGee open in the Ducks’ 59-17 win on Sept. 7.

That, though, has been a refreshing development for Swanson, the team’s fullback a year ago. At 6 feet 7, he came to Virginia as a tight end and was moved back there ahead of spring practice to provide a better blocking option. The presence of a new coaching staff then allowed his receiving skills to further blossom.

McGee noted Wednesday he “never really counted [Swanson] as a fullback no matter what they were saying” last year, and the role never did seem to fit. Swanson missed being a receiving threat, and says each catch this year is “almost like a reward. It’s like, ‘Yes, I’m still an athlete.’ ”

Swanson even joked this week about his lone touchdown in 2012, when he scored in the closing seconds of Virginia’s 56-20 loss at Georgia Tech, that “nobody even cared. Nobody even knew I scored the touchdown. They didn’t even let us kick the extra point.”

“I hope they keep not paying attention to me so I keep catching passes,” he added. “Jake is Jake. Jake plays his game and I think I play a little bit different from him and I’m gonna keep doing that and hopefully I continue to have success. . . . I caught a lot of balls in spring practice and Coach O’Brien was there and I think my teammates and everybody sort of knew, ‘Hey, it’s not just Jake that’s the catching tight end.’ ”

McGee’s emergence as one of Watford’s favorite targets has not been a surprise. He had 28 catches for 374 yards and five touchdowns in 2012.

But McGee has overcome a few unexpected obstacles since the end of last season. The junior had a class schedule that forced him to miss a good chunk of every practice during the spring and then missed a majority of training camp nursing a shoulder injury.

The setbacks meant he couldn’t prove to O’Brien that the extra weight he put on this offseason (McGee is up to 250 pounds) had made him into a proficient blocker. Before Virginia’s season opener, McGee was even listed as the team’s third tight end on the depth chart.

But McGee’s role has gotten progressively bigger since the close of the preseason, and London noted this week he is “one of the best tight ends out there.” McGee said he has played double the amount of snaps as last year when he was splitting plays with three others.

“It’s been a more variety of things, which I think has made some of the other routes for me come open,” McGee said. “Whereas last year they might have known what was coming, this year I’ve sort of been running everything.”

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