“The Kid” comes up big
Unknown fourth-string tight end becomes Nittany Lion-taming hero
Before he became known simply as “The Kid,” sophomore tight end Jake McGee had a decision to make. The football and basketball star at Collegiate High School could remain committed to his hometown Richmond Spiders or he could follow coach Mike London to the team he had grown up rooting for after his grandfather Robert lettered as a baseball player at Virginia in 1960.
McGee did not hesitate. He dialed London’s number and told his new coach he wanted to be a Cavalier. The decision has worked out pretty well for both of them.
Despite being listed fourth on the team’s tight end depth chart entering the season, the former quarterback prospect has been the most prominent figure in the team’s 2-0 start. In his first game of the season, McGee made highlight reels nationwide with a diving one-handed catch against the Spiders, the school he had once planned to attend.
Following the game, London discussed carving out a bigger role for the long, tall and athletic matchup nightmare. McGee had been burning veteran Virginia defenders for weeks in training camp with his superb pass-catching ability, and his debut proved his readiness.
“McGee is tough, because he’s bigger than a lot of defensive backs and he can run [better] than a lot of linebackers,” senior linebacker Steve Greer said. “Me and him had a little competition going on during training. We had fun with it. I think a lot of people are excited, but we’re not surprised with the catches he’s made, because he makes those in practice.”
Against Penn State, it all came together in the biggest game of McGee’s young career. McGee made one of the most memorable catches in London’s tenure as head coach, hauling in a 44-yard reception on third-and-16 on the team’s final drive to set up his own go-ahead touchdown with 1:28 left in the 17-16 win.
“Some of the catches have been a little crazier than I thought they would be, but I’ve been confident with what I could do,” McGee said. “It was just getting the chances to do it.”
McGee finalized his decision to attend the University while on a recruitment visit with current Cavalier junior quarterback Michael Rocco, whom he roomed with on the trip. Like McGee, Rocco was a Virginia-native and quarterback prospect wrestling with the decision of reneging on a commitment to another school — in Rocco’s case, Louisville. The pair had developed a mutual respect while battling against one another in high school basketball and football games, including the 2009 Virginia Independent Schools championship football game, in which McGee’s seven touchdowns led Collegiate past Rocco’s Liberty Christian Academy.
“We’ve become good friends and we talk about [those games] a little bit,” McGee said. “We laugh about it because we both played well, but I got him in football and basketball. I can only say so much or the ball might not come my way.”
Within a few weeks after the visit, Rocco made his decision. He too would join London at Virginia in the hopes of one day earning snaps under center for the Cavaliers, apparently pitting him once again against his former high school rival McGee.
Two practices into his career at the University, however, McGee acquiesced to his coaches’ prodding and agreed to switch to tight end. The basketball star had rare natural ability at the position with his lethal combination of height, strength and explosiveness. Two games into what is promising to be a breakout season for McGee, both London and Rocco are glad he did.
“I just knew it would be best to do it earlier than later in the process,” McGee said.
McGee still has work to do in learning to be a consistent pass blocker, but the sophomore is not shy in his aspirations to become a complete and dominant player in all facets of the game, telling offensive coordinator Bill Lazor upon switching positions that he wanted to emulate legendary former Cavalier tight end Heath Miller.
McGee demonstrated his progress toward that end goal last weekend, earning Virginia’s special teams player of the week award for his coverage on punt returns against Penn State in addition to earning the offensive honor.
By coincidence, McGee wears the same number, 83, that Miller now dons for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. Miller also came to the University as a quarterback prospect and adopted a catchy two-word nickname, “Big Money,” for his play-making abilities.
McGee, on the other hand, got his nickname for his constant trash-talking while playing FIFA videogames with teammates. He and Rocco often get the better of junior center Luke Bowanko and senior tight end Paul Freedman, McGee said. When a game is going well for McGee, he playfully refers to himself in the third person as, “The Kid.”
Whenever McGee sees the mural of “Big Money” Miller at the McCue Center training facility, he sees everything he wants to become — a complete player, fan favorite and constant competitor. “The Kid” may have work to do to match Miller’s storied career, but his recent play has at least ensured that when Miller returns to Scott Stadium Oct. 13 for a ceremony retiring his collegiate number, 89, McGee will be more than just a fourth-string tight end.
“His role will increase because he has demonstrated performance and production, and that’s what we are trying to find,” London said. “To get a tight end back in this offense, back as a feature or go-to guy, he’s demonstrated that in the last two games. He’s done it in practice time and time again. So you’ll see more of him for sure.”
McGee is likely to be a focal point of opposing defenses in the coming weeks. Saturday, that will mean matching up against the schemes of former Virginia coach and current Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh, who did not seriously pursue McGee in his final season before being fired in November 2009.
“He was a Division I-A prospect, but that’s what happens sometimes,” London said. “Some young men, they get overlooked or the numbers just don’t quite work out for the schools to have those slots and those scholarships that are available. It just happened that when we came to Virginia, that there were slots and a scholarship available.”