When UVa took the field this past spring, there were some things coaches and fans alike wanted to see. And one of them was, without a doubt, the play of the group at tight end. After the practices he had and the plays he made, especially in the Spring Game, Richmond native Jake McGee left no doubt that he'll be a big part of the offense this fall.
"Wherever they throw it, I just try to make a play and do the best I can," McGee, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound sophomore, said after the Orange and Blue Spring Game. "I know my job and I'm ready to make it happen."
The past two years, Virginia's dip in production at a position that had become synonymous with the Cavaliers over the last decade had been troubling. It wasn't that UVa didn't have quality players but the unit had not produced.
So head coach Mike London made a tweak to his staff, moving assistant coach Shawn Moore from receivers to tight ends. The move, Moore said, gave that group a dedicated member of the staff to work with the players constantly while also giving them a voice.
"Whenever we're putting together the game plan, now they have someone who is always thinking about them and I think that's going to be important for them this season," Moore said.
In reality, the group is diverse. When Colter Phillips returns from rehabbing his ankle after surgery following the 2011 season, the Wahoos will have two seniors to lead at tight end: Phillips, a 6-foot-6, 245 pounder, and Paul Freedman, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound mountain who may have the best hands on the team.
"There's no doubt in my mind," offensive lineman Luke Bowanko, himself rehabbing, said of Freedman. "That guy has the best hands of anybody out there and that's a big deal for our tight ends."
There's also junior Jeremiah Mathis, another player who will see a lot of time this year for the Cavaliers, especially in short-yardage situations and near the goal line.
Where McGee fits in, though, comes in the passing game. There were times in 2011 when UVa looked for him down the middle of the field and the pass was just out of his reach. In the spring game, he caught a 47-yard bomb and it capped an excellent few weeks for the former Collegiate School standout.
"It's so different for me," McGee said of this spring as opposed to the last. "I feel so comfortable with the offense and just playing as fast as I can and doing everything I can to play as hard as I can."
McGee's improvement can be seen as a microcosm of the whole team. He said the players can tell how much they've improved over the course of the last year.
"It's nice having the quarterbacks set up with confidence, they know what they're doing and it just feeds down to every other position," McGee said. "We're just building off of everybody else."
As a player who can make the kind of down-field plays that Virginia's offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has said the Cavaliers need to do more of, McGee showed plenty this spring. The big pass reception between a pair of defenders during the spring game in front of roughly 8,000 in Scott Stadium was evidence of what he can bring to the table.
"I saw it late," he recalled. "And just went up and got it. That's what I've been trying to do all spring: Make them feel comfortable throwing it to me at any time and I'll go get it. That's probably what I feel the most confident with, is going to get the passes and running fast. Just going to get it and having (the quarterbacks) feel like I'm a security blanket on the field."
Of course, McGee didn't come to UVa to be a guy who was providing a security blanket for quarterbacks. Instead, he was one. But he says the move away from being the guy throwing the passes to being the guy catching them was somewhat natural for him.
"What I did in high school wasn't like a college quarterback," he explained. "So this was the best for my future and it's been going well ever since."
With the culmination of the spring in front of him, McGee says he "felt really confident if the plays came into place" going into the spring game, a confidence that he says will stick with him.
"Luckily I was able to make some good catches," he said.