McGee, Swanson shine despite offensive woes
Junior tight ends seek to bolster lackluster offense
From an incredible one-handed catch against Penn State that put the Virginia football team in a position to kick a game-winning field goal, to a clutch game-winning catch against Miami in the back of the endzone, junior tight end Jake McGee had his fair share of highlights in last year’s otherwise disappointing football season. He continued to shine in spite of an overall dismal offensive outing against Oregon, snagging eight passes, twice as many as his previous single-game best. In doing so, McGee has emerged as one of the anchors of the Cavalier offense.
“He’s one of the better options and best players on our offensive side of the ball,” coach Mike London said. “The ability to … utilize his skill set is always going to be critical for our development and the success for our offense.”
But in Virginia’s most recent misadventure, junior tight end Zach Swanson joined McGee in his success, hauling in four catches against Oregon. While the rest of the Virginia receiving corps struggled to get anything going against the Ducks’ vaunted secondary, the pair of tight ends were able to take advantage of Oregon’s more susceptible linebacker unit.
“Oregon had those really two strong corners,” Swanson said. “And a lot of times me or Jake kind of worked ourselves open, and we were open a lot in that game.”
Swanson switched from fullback to tight end during the offseason and is making an immediate impact, currently leading the team with 9.1 yards per catch.
“That’s one of the great parts, moving back to tight end from fullback,” Swanson said. “It’s one of the parts I missed dearly at fullback, because I wouldn’t get the ball as much and I’d have to block a lot. It’s almost like a reward, it’s like, ‘Yes! I’m still an athlete!’”
One of the staples of the Cavaliers’ offensive schemes is the rotation of the tight ends. Many times when a team has two young stars like McGee and Swanson, it’s tough for one of them to give up the spotlight, but for the time being that does not seem to be an issue for Virginia.
“We don’t have a set thing,” Swanson said. “If I get tired, Jake goes in, and a lot of times we do a lot of two tight ends, so I’ll stay in or I’ll go out. There’s no set schedule.”
Coming off a bye week, Virginia will look to build upon the continued success of its tight ends. Hopefully the emergence of Swanson will help to improve the offense’s struggles on third down, much of which can be attributed to sophomore quarterback David Watford’s 65.5 quarterback rating on third down compared to his 103.8 and 115.3 QBR on first and second down, respectively. Virginia’s feeble third down efficiency continues to be a glaring weakness on offense.
“Me and Jake had a good game because of the way things worked out,” Swanson said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh we had a good game, now we need to rein it in and push something else.’ I think the best thing to do is improve on your areas of weakness.”
Even though the tight ends compete for playing time, it hasn’t seemed to take a toll on their friendship. The two managed to lighten the mood during a bye week practice by exchanging jerseys with each other, pranking a majority of their coaches and teammates.
“We [switched jerseys], and he caught a touchdown pass in practice,” Swanson said. “I think it’s kind of funny to switch jerseys with somebody because you just look completely different with a different number, it’s really strange. [Associate head coach for offense Tom] O’Brien wasn’t at practice, so I was like ‘Yes!’ Now, when he looks on film, he’ll be like ‘Great catch, Zach!’”
But when asked about the excess of attention surrounding McGee, Swanson didn’t seem to mind the perceived slight by opposing defenses.
“I hope they keep not paying attention to me so I catch passes,” he said. “Jake is Jake. Jake plays his game, and I think I play the game a little bit different to him, and I’m going to keep doing that, and hopefully I continue to have success.”