TE Jake McGee’s comeback bid adds veteran influence to Gators offense

Florida Gators tight end Jake McGee (83) turns 24 in September and offers a veteran voice in a tight end group that includes a sophomore, two redshirt freshmen, and a true freshman.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The nickname doesn’t quite fit like it once did for Jake McGee.

As an underclassman at Virginia, McGee and his teammates waged some heated video game battles. McGee could play and often won. He could trash talk, too.

Somewhere along the line, McGee’s former Cavaliers teammate Canaan Severin labeled him "The Kid." The nickname soon spread to the rest of the team and to the media.

These days his teammates see McGee in a different light.

Sophomore DeAndre Goolsby, sharing reps with McGee this spring at tight end, was asked the other day about McGee as a mentor.

"Jake has some experience as old as he is — 25, 26 now,” Goolsby said.  "He helps out a lot."

After transferring to UF and enrolling in graduate school last summer, a few weeks later McGee’s debut with the Gators ended with him carted off the field to a waiting ambulance. McGee suffered a broken leg early in the second quarter in the opener against Eastern Michigan.

His season was over.

While McGee isn’t as old as Goolsby guessed, he is no longer "The Kid." McGee turns 24 in September and offers a veteran voice in a tight end group that includes a sophomore, two redshirt freshmen, and a true freshman.

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"I’m embracing it,” McGee said. "I’m like an older brother. You want to give them as much influence and knowledge as I have to get them as good as they can be."

He is older than the rest of the group but after the experience of last season, McGee is as excited as they are about the chance to play.

McGee barely got his helmet on a season ago before it was stored away. He was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA during the offseason.

"That was a pretty stressful situation,” McGee said. "If I got the [extra] year I was going to come back. I was just fortunate it worked out and I was able to keep going."

The Gators received word of the NCAA’s decision about two weeks after head coach Jim McElwain took over the program from the previous staff after the Birmingham Bowl. McElwain has utilized the tight end in various ways in his career with success.

The return of McGee was a bonus as he tries to reboot Florida’s offense.

"I sure didn’t want him to leave,” McElwain said. "That really was out of our hands. We were sure excited, and he was, too. The smile on his face to be able to come back and play that last year was something that was huge."

McGee underwent surgery the night of the injury and said doctors inserted a titanium rod and screws in his lower left leg to help his broken fibula and tibia heal. Once he could walk and put weight on the leg, he began to slowly work his way back into football shape, a process that took several months.

"Playing football, you know what can happen,” McGee said. "It’s sort of a freak accident. I went into a little bit of a shock. It’s nothing you wish on anyone."

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The injury was a costly one to Florida’s offense. McGee was projected to be the team’s primary option at the position but after he was hurt, seniors Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook split time and combined for 26 catches, 237 yards, and three touchdowns.

The 6-foot-6 McGee possesses better hands and speed than either Burton or Westbrook, one of the reasons former UF offensive coordinator Kurt Roper looked forward to utilizing McGee in the downfield passing game.

McGee had 71 catches for 769 yards and seven touchdowns in his final two seasons at Virginia, including game-winning touchdown catches against Penn State and Miami in 2012. A quarterback in high school, McGee added 35 pounds and moved to tight end his first season at Virginia.

Once he got to play, McGee flashed an uncanny ability to make big catches at key times for the Cavaliers. His first career catch was in the 2012 season opener against Richmond when McGee backpedaled, reached high with his left hand, and snared the ball inbounds for a 17-yard gain.

"He’s a big guy. He can think on his feet,” former Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid, whose job in practice was to find a way to defend McGee, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2012. "He’s a great student. He’s really upped his game."

When former Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor left to join the Philadelphia Eagles after McGee’s redshirt junior season in 2013, he opted to transfer and decided on the Gators.

McGee is not participating in live drills this spring but said he could if needed. The Gators are limiting McGee as a safety measure just eight months since the injury.

As "The Kid," McGee might not have fully grasped the need to take it slow. Older and wiser, he does now.

"I feel really good,” he said. "We’re being cautious with it this spring, but I’m running around out there. I’m getting tackled a few times. It’s fun to be back out there."