April 5, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Their UVa football careers ended in late November, but tight ends Paul Freedman and Colter Phillips are still regulars at the McCue Center, where they train with strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus.
They’ve also been regulars at the Cavaliers’ practices this spring. Of particular interest to Freedman and Phillips, Marcus said, has been their buddy Jake McGee’s interaction with UVa’s new tight ends coach, Tom O’Brien.
“They love watching him squirm under Coach O’Brien,” Marcus said, laughing. “They love the fact that he can’t just send in the goon squad to take care of the dirty work. Now all of the sudden he has to do it. These two guys are loving every practice they come to.”
Of the four tight ends who played regularly for Virginia last year, Phillips and Freedman were by far the best blockers, in part because of their size. Each played at about 260 pounds. The lighter, faster, more athletic McGee’s main job was to catch passes, and he did so with aplomb.
McGee finished the season with 28 receptions for 374 yards and five touchdowns, including game-winning TD catches against Penn State and Miami.
“You needed a play, you needed a first down, Jake was there,” Marcus said.
With Phillips and Freedman out of eligibility, and another tight end, Jeremiah Mathis, no longer on the team, the Wahoos need McGee, a redshirt junior, to do more than catch passes this year. He’s confident he can become an all-purpose tight end.
“I like to think I can do anything they ask me to do,” McGee said, “but when you have guys like [Phillips and Freedman] who are veterans to the team and have been doing it a long time, then they’re very skilled at that aspect. It wasn’t asked of me to do certain things [last season].”
McGee knows that “the more you can do, the more you can be used. So I need to get to where I can do the blocking, so it doesn’t affect how much I can and can’t do.”
With Mario Nixon recovering from knee surgery, O’Brien is working with four tight ends this spring: redshirt sophomore Rob Burns and redshirt juniors McGee, Zachary Swanson and Jeremy Dollin, a walk-on. Burns moved from defensive end to tight end last year. Swanson played fullback last season.
“It’s still a work in progress,” O’Brien said after practice Friday morning. “So it’s really going to be important once we finish spring practice for all the tight ends [to focus on] where we go from here. I think we’ve got the concepts and the ideas and the fundamentals of what we want to get accomplished. Now they’ve got to get in the weight room and get bigger and stronger, and that’ll help a lot.
“Jake himself, as I keep telling him, he needs more lead in his pencil. That would help him.”
McGee, a graduate of Collegiate School in Richmond, weighed 205 pounds when he reported to UVa in July 2010. He was recruited as a quarterback, but not long after training camp began that summer McGee moved, at his request, to tight end.
He’s steadily gained weight since then and now carries about 240 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. The coaching staff, Marcus said, would like to see McGee at 245 to 250.
“I think 245 is reasonable this summer,” Marcus said. “With Jake, he does have some low-back tightness, he is a little bit stiff, so you do have to be mindful, when you’re adding weight, that he doesn’t get tight hamstrings, because he has had a history of that. So it has to be a very gradual weight gain for him. You just can’t throw five pounds of mass on him. He will pull something.
“It has to be very small increments. Literally one pound a week or one pound every two weeks, because you have to give his body a chance to adapt to it.”
The Cavaliers’ annual Orange-Blue scrimmage is Saturday at 1 p.m. McGee expects to have a large cheering section at Scott Stadium, where admission and parking are free.
“The spring game’s always a fun time,” he said. “You really want to rise to the occasion and have a good day as an offense and sort of set yourself up for positive energy going into the fall.”
For McGee, Saturdays have been special this spring, because he’s been able to meet all his football obligations on those days.
Weekdays are another matter. McGee has a 10 a.m. class in his major, psychology, that has forced him to miss half of practice Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“It’s been frustrating, because I haven’t been able to truly [participate fully],” McGee said. “Having new coaches, you want them to be able to see more than just the tape from last year, and you want to be stepping into a leadership role more this year. You want to be out there going through everything with your teammates.”
Still, McGee said, the class is “something that I had to take, and I think [the coaches would] rather have me miss some spring ball than miss practice during the season.”
McGee’s absences have made it difficult for his new position coach to fully evaluate No. 83’s strengths and weaknesses. “He’s missed so much,” O’Brien said.
Burns appeared in only one game last season, as did Dollin. McGee and Swanson played significantly more, but O’Brien, who was NC State’s head coach last season, said he didn’t watch much videotape of them after joining Mike London’s staff at UVa in January.
“I didn’t want to form any opinions one way or another,” O’Brien said. “It wouldn’t matter to me what they did last year or who they are, it’s all starting anew, and it’s what we do each and every day, and who’s going to be the best.
“Every day we grade [the tight ends]. They’re given a grade. They’re critiqued for their performance, good, bad or indifferent, on the field. I think the thing I like about all four of them is they’ve taken to the coaching, they’re straining, they’re trying, they’re trying to do the right thing. As long as they do that, then we’re going to have a chance to have a couple guys that can play for us.”
O’Brien is the fourth tight ends coach McGee has had at UVa. The first, in 2010, was Scott Wachenheim, who now coaches the Cavaliers’ offensive line. Graduate assistant Gordie Sammis worked with the tight ends in 2011, when McGee was a redshirt freshman, and then Shawn Moore took on that job in 2012.
“Coach Moore was a big help to me in the passing game,” McGee said, “but I think long-term Coach O’Brien will only help me tremendously.”
O’Brien, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, is a former Marine officer, and “you definitely know there’s a lot of discipline in his background,” McGee said, smiling.
“It’s good. He’s different. He’s more hard-nosed, more old school. It’s a different approach, but it’s needed, and it’ll help us in the long run.”
“We’re still just getting the basics in now,” McGee said. “It’s just spring practice. There’s always a lot more added and more scouting when it comes to what goes in in the season, but the attitude is great around here right now. It’s focused, and winning is really the goal.”
McGee, whose teammates affectionately call him The Kid, starred on special teams in 2011 and again last season. What role, if any, he’ll have in the kicking game this year hasn’t been determined, but “I hope to contribute in any way that they need me,” McGee said.
“It’s really just getting out there and running and just playing football. If they want me to help, I’d love to do it.”
McGee, as has been well-chronicled, is a UVa legacy. His paternal grandfather, Robert McGee, who died in July 2010, played baseball at Virginia and graduated in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
To be playing football at Virginia, Jake McGee said, is “kind of a dream come true, really. I grew up coming to UVa games with my grandfather and being around the University. So it’s a lot of things coming together, and hopefully I can just continue to grow on it.”
SHOW RETURNS: Three new 30-minute installments of “The Building of a Program,” a television show that focuses on UVa football, will air this month.
The first of the new episodes premiered Friday afternoon on Comcast SportsNet and can be seen on VirginiaSportsTV.com. It will also air Saturday on WAHU FOX 27 at 9:30 a.m., on Comcast SportsNet at 10:30 a.m., on WVAW ABC 16 at 11 a.m., and on WCAV CBS 19 at 11:30 a.m.
The second episode will debut next Friday and the third episode on Friday, April 19.
EQUIPMENT SALE: Authentic game-worn UVa football jerseys and helmets will be on sale before the scrimmage Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Jerseys from the 2006, ’07, ’08 and `09 seasons will be available for $75 apiece, and a variety of bowl jerseys will be available in limited numbers for $150 each. Game-worn navy helmets and white throwback helmets (from Virginia’s 2008 game against Richmond) will be available for $150 each. All jerseys and helmets are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Cash and credit cards will be accepted, but no checks.
Also, an autographed Matt Schaub jersey will be auctioned off Saturday. The jersey/helmet sale will take place behind the scoreboard at the open end of Scott Stadium, starting when the gates open at 11 a.m.