By Jeff White
Linebacker Daquan “Da-Da” Romero grabbed the ball on the bounce and, with nothing but about 60 yards of green grass ahead of him, took off for the end zone at POMOCO Stadium.
Jake McGee took off in pursuit. And as Romero approached the goal line, McGee dived at him from behind and knocked the ball loose.
“I was just trying to hustle after him,” McGee after the second of the three practices Virginia will hold outside Charlottesville this spring. Romero’s team recovered the fumble in the end zone, “but I got to him, so it was good,” McGee said with a smile.
A redshirt sophomore from Richmond, the 6-5 McGee became known for such relentlessness last season, when he emerged as one of the Cavaliers’ top performers on special teams. He made eight tackles — seven of them unassisted — forced a fumble, and recovered a fumble.
On offense, though, McGee’s impact was minimal. Ahead of him on the depth chart at tight end were Paul Freedman, Colter Phillips and Jeremiah Mathis. All are back, but Phillips is sidelined with an ankle injury this spring, and McGee’s speed and athleticism make it likely that his role in the offense will grow significantly this year.
“It’s very realistic,” head coach Mike London said. “Jake has gotten stronger, he’s gotten bigger, and we’d like to incorporate the tight end in our offense on a more regular basis.
“Paul Freedman does a good job, but Jake is probably faster and can press the seams there a little bit. This could be a big year for him, because of the skills that he has.”
In 2011, Freedman led UVa’s tight ends with 11 catches for 112 yards. Mathis had six for 25 yards and two touchdowns, and Phillips, slowed by a bum ankle, added three receptions for 15 yards.
McGee ended the season without a catch. The few passes thrown his way were on plays designed to produce big gains. Against Southern Mississippi, for example, McGee burst free in the secondary on a seam route. A reception might have turned into a long touchdown play, but McGee couldn’t come down with the ball.
“I didn’t capitalize on it,” he said. “But we’ll grow from it this year, and it won’t happen again.”
McGee, who had an illustrious career as a quarterback at Collegiate School, originally committed to the University of Richmond, whose coach then was London. In December 2009, however, London took the job at UVa, and McGee later withdrew his commitment to UR and followed London to Charlottesville.
When McGee reported to UVa in July 2010, he weighed only 205 pounds, and when the team opened training camp that summer, he was with the quarterbacks. But he soon requested — and was granted — a move to tight end. McGee lacked bulk, so he was something of a long-term project at his new position. Still, the coaching staff loved his potential, and McGee steadily improved while redshirting in the fall of 2010.
“What he needs to do is, he needs to learn how to block, because he’s never done that,” Scott Wachenheim, the UVa’s tight ends coach, said in October 2010.
“But he’s got great hands, great ability and he’s tough and he’s physical, and I think his future will be very, very bright.”
In 2011, McGee’s special-teams contributions made him a favorite of UVa fans. No. 83 was often the first Cavalier down the field and wreaked havoc in punt and kickoff coverage.
“It was my way on the field to prove to everybody that I could play at this level,” McGee said. “So I started there and hopefully can grow into a lot of reps at tight end.”
In his second spring at that position, “I feel a lot better,” McGee said. “The playbook, I know it all now. I’m comfortable with the steps. Now it moves to [details] more than just knowing where to line up. I can play at full speed.”
The skinny kid out of Collegiate now weighs close to 240 pounds. UVa’s coaches “kept telling me I had the frame [to carry more weight],” McGee said, “so I just believed them and worked on it.”
In Phillips’ absence, McGee’s workload has increased his spring. “It definitely helps me,” McGee said. “He’s been doing it for so long that it helps me improve, because I don’t have as much practice reps as he does. He’s been supporting me throughout, and he’s like a big brother out there.”
UVa opens the season Sept. 1 against Richmond at Scott Stadium. How long McGee will have to wait for his first reception as a Cavalier in uncertain, but he figures prominently in the team’s passing game, and “I think this year we plan on connecting more often,” London said.
McGee is a part of a large group of UVa players from the Richmond area. Others include Morgan Moses, Anthony Harris, Drequan Hoskey, Jake Snyder, Conner Davis, Diamonte Bailey, Greg Gallop, John Pond, Billy Skrobacz, Bobby Smith and Alec Vozenilek.
Since London, a UR alumnus, took over at Virginia, his team has held spring practices in Norfolk, Alexandria, Hampton, Fairfax and Newport News. The Cavaliers’ next tour stop is in Richmond. They’ll practice at Sports Backers Stadium, next to The Diamond, from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday.
If this practice is as successful as the one at CNU, everyone associated with UVa’s program will be delighted. About 1,800 people came out to watch Friday night. Among those spotted in the crowd were former UVa players Josh Zidenberg and Kevin Riccio, several high school coaches from the Tidewater area, and six of the recruits who signed with the Cavaliers in February: Jamall Brown, Mark Hall, Eli Harold, Kwontie Moore, Mario Nixon and Wil Wahee.
Also on hand were Old Dominion University defensive coordinator Bill Dee, who is a former head coach at Phoebus High, and Christopher Newport’s coaches and players, including tight end Tyson Wachenheim. Tyson’s father, Scott, coaches UVa’s offensive line.