Virginia tight end Jake McGee flashed a sheepish grin when the topic turned to his acrobatic catches from 2012. He doesn’t mind the comparisons to former Cavaliers great Heath Miller.
With game-winning touchdown receptions in Virginia’s two biggest wins last year — Penn State and Miami — and a one-handed grab to start the season against Richmond on his résumé, McGee emerged as Virginia’s most potent offensive playmaker during a campaign that didn’t feature nearly enough highlights.
But when the subject was broached with McGee’s new position coach last week, none of that seemed to matter. Instead, a simple question was raised: Can he block?
“Jake’s gotta learn to be an on-the-line tight end if he’s gonna play,” said Tom O’Brien, who will coach Virginia’s tight ends in addition to his duties as the associate head coach for offense this year.
Playing time shouldn’t be an issue for McGee, especially because he returned to full-contact practice Monday after being hampered by a shoulder stinger early in training camp. Even offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who has mostly spoken in platitudes when discussing his new scheme, said he’s “excited” with the possibilities McGee’s talents present.
But too often last season, McGee’s presence telegraphed that a pass was coming his way. The Cavaliers used seniors Paul Freedman and Colter Phillips whenever a key block was needed from the tight end position.
McGee finished with 28 catches last year, but just nine of them came in the final five games of the season as teams began to plan against him.
“One of the things we always want to work on with him is being physical at the point of attack. It’s something that Jake has been working on and will continue to work on and knows that that has to be part of his game as well,” Virginia Coach Mike London said. “We don’t want teams game-planning what they do based on what he’s limited at.”
To rectify that, the former high school quarterback added 15 pounds to his frame this offseason and now weighs 250 pounds. He noted earlier this month that “to be a full tight end, there’s a body type that you need to be” and insists his speed, which made him a matchup nightmare in the passing game, hasn’t been affected.
And it’s not like he can’t be physical. The 6-foot-6 McGee was a special teams standout last year, routinely the first player down the field on punt coverage. He relishes the role largely because “that’s where I truly get to do some hitting.” New special teams coordinator Larry Lewis said he would use McGee on every special teams unit if he could.
That, though, won’t be possible if McGee has an expanded role on the offense. He already appears to have embraced the expectations that have come as a result of his play a year ago.
“I would have liked the ball a little more, but I didn’t earn all of it [last year],” McGee added. “I’d say I’ve improved a lot. I feel confident in saying I can be an every-down blocker, every-down player. . . . I consider myself a weapon. Me being on the field as many plays as possible will help the team.”
How Fairchild will use the junior tight end in his offensive scheme remains to be seen, because he has kept his plans for this season close to the vest. But during two of his four years as a head coach at Colorado State, Fairchild’s leading receiver was a tight end.
He should have plenty of options aside from McGee, as well. Junior Zach Swanson, who is 6-6, made the switch from fullback to tight end this season, and London has indicated he will be the team’s blocking specialist this year. All-Met Rob Burns (Stone Bridge High), who moved to tight end from defensive end this offseason, has also come on strong.
O’Brien noted last week that Burns’s naivete and willingness to listen has worked in his favor because McGee and Swanson “may have had bad habits from what they did before.” London even called the 6-7 Burns “the pleasant surprise” of August because of his soft hands and improved strength.
“Everybody talks about Jake this and Zach that, but Rob has had a pretty good camp,” London said.
Cavaliers notes: London announced that redshirt freshman Wilfred Wahee will miss the 2013 season after tearing his ACL in practice recently. Wahee had been competing to be Virginia’s fourth cornerback. Freshman Tim Harris, who is also battling at that spot, has been dealing with groin and lower leg injuries of late. . . . London also noted that sophomore Ross Burbank has moved ahead of redshirt freshman Jackson Matteo (Broad Run) in the competition to be Virginia’s starting center when it faces BYU on Aug. 31. In addition, senior Billy Skrobacz is the front-runner to be the team’s top fullback. Freshman Connor Wingo-Reeves and converted defensive lineman Vince Croce (Good Counsel) are also candidates for playing time there.