Training Camp Preview -- Tight Ends
July 24, 2014
NOTE: This is the second installment in a series in which VirginiaSports.com examines the 2014 football team by position.
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Zachary Swanson enrolled at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2010, and the Cavaliers’ football team included more than a half-dozen other tight ends that fall, among them Joe Torchia, Paul Freedman, Colter Phillips and Jake McGee.
The room is much less crowded when UVa’s tight ends meet this summer.
The departure of McGee, who transferred to Florida after graduating from Virginia in May, left head coach Mike London with two scholarship tight ends: Swanson, a fifth-year senior, and Rob Burns, a redshirt junior. That number grew to three this month when Evan Butts, a recent high school graduate, enrolled at UVa.
“Jake had to make a decision that was good for Jake McGee, and he made it,” London told reporters Monday in Greensboro, N.C. “We’re moving on from when that decision was made to where we are now, and I believe we’re at a place, and I’m at a place, where I wish him well, and I know he wishes us well.”
A special-teams standout as a redshirt freshman in 2011, McGee did not catch any passes that season. But he played a leading role in the Wahoos’ passing attack in 2012 and ’13, totaling 71 receptions for 769 yards and seven touchdowns.
McGee’s decision to use his final year of eligibility elsewhere did not change “the way I was approaching [the season] or preparing,” Swanson said last week. “But when that happens, it’s like, `Maybe somebody’s saying this is an opportunity for you.”
London said: “The guys that are going take his place, they’re aching, itching, for an opportunity to produce for this team as well.”
Butts is likely to play as a true freshman, given the Cavaliers’ lack of depth at tight end, and he may also compete for the long-snapping job. Early in the season, though, Swanson and Burns figure to take most of the reps at tight end.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Swanson said. “I feel like me and Rob are completely capable of doing whatever’s asked. We’re in shape, and we can even rotate if need be.”
Swanson, who returned to tight end in 2013 after two seasons at fullback, has caught 27 passes for 261 yards and one TD in college. He’s eager to assume a larger role in the passing game.
“I was at fullback for two years, and you don’t catch a lot of passes,” Swanson said. “Then last year I had some success, but I was hurt for a little while and then never really got back into the groove of it.
“I have a goal of catching three to four passes a game, for the whole season, and that’s something that we’ve been working on [in drills with quarterback Greyson Lambert] … That’s something that’s very important to me, catching passes and being a part of the offense passing-wise.”
Swanson knows that many outside the McCue Center see him primarily as a blocking tight end, but “I don’t like it when people put the labels on us,” he said. “I know I can go out there, run routes, get open and catch passes and move the sticks. And Rob can do the same.
“People want to label him or me as run-block guys, and Jake as a pass guy, but there’s a lot of crossover. I feel like there’s a lot of athleticism that comes with playing at the position. Because tight end is a unique position. A lot of times you don’t have to have the speed or whatever to break away from corners or whatever. A lot of times it’s running inside routes and getting a step or two on a guy by a quick cut or learning how to run a route correctly. And I feel like me and Rob, we’ve gotten really good at that. And I think we’re going to both see a lot of passes this year.”
Burns, a converted defensive end, has caught only one pass (for no yards) in his UVa career. But he’s been honing his receiving skills in seven-on-seven workouts this summer and, Swanson believes Burns is capable of making a significant contribution this season.
“The learning curve, that’s part of it,” Swanson said. “You’ve got to learn how to do these things successfully. You’ve got to learn how to win on routes and stuff. And I feel like just going through and working and running routes on seven-on-seven, against a [defender], instead of just running on air, is a huge thing. You learn different looks and then you’re like, `Wow, that didn’t work, maybe doing this will.’ “
If necessary, fullback Vincent Croce, a 6-4, 260-pound junior, could also fill in at tight end, London said Monday at the ACC Football Kickoff. For the tight ends, this is their second season under the direction of Tom O’Brien, also the associate head coach for offense.
A look at UVa’s tight ends:
* No. 49, Zachary Swanson (6-6, 260-pound fifth-year senior, Katy, Texas). After earning his bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Swanson is competing as a graduate student this season. He came to UVa as a tight end but moved to fullback before the 2011 season. He played fullback for two seasons before switching back to tight end in 2013, when he caught 19 passes for 173 yards. At fullback, he had eight catches for 88 yards and one TD in 2012.
* No. 89, Rob Burns (6-7, 260-pound junior, Ashburn). A graduate of Stone Bridge High, Burns came to UVa as a skinny defensive end. He switched to tight end in 2012 and has steadily added weight during his college career. In 2013, he played in all 12 games, with one start, and was used primarily as a blocker. Burns’ only catch as a Cavalier went for no gain against North Carolina last fall.
* No. 45, Evan Butts (6-4, 225-pound true freshman, Newtown Square, Pa.). At Episcopal Academy outside Philadelphia, Butts played tight end and defensive end and also handled the long-snapping. He averaged 19.4 yards per catch and set a school record with 813 receiving yards as an Episcopal senior. Butts is an excellent athlete who also has played basketball, baseball and lacrosse.