- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For a team that was desperate for playmakers on offense last season, the Florida Gators have growing hopes for 2014.
Enthusiasm has been building since spring football ended, and it's not just because starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy or the young receivers and running backs have another year of experience and maturity.
It's the tight end position, and one player in particular.
"I'm very excited," head coach Will Muschamp said to a gathering of media on Tuesday in Orlando, Fla. "He's a guy that has tremendous ball skills, very good athlete at 6-5, 245 pounds and runs extremely well. I think he’s a good addition to our team, and he’ll certainly compete well."
The Gators haven't had a pass-catching tight end since 2012, when Jordan Reed led the team with 45 catches for 559 yards and three touchdowns. He was Driskel's safety net and go-to target. Not coincidentally, the Gators had their best season under Muschamp, winning 11 games.
"I think it was a very offensive position when Jordan Reed was here," Muschamp said.
Last year, it was just plain offensive.
It won't be hard for Florida to improve on the production it got out of the tight end position last season -- a total of four catches.
Florida returns seniors Tevin Westbrook (three catches in 2013) and Clay Burton (one catch), who have been used primarily as blockers. The Gators also are building depth at the position with three true freshmen. DeAndre Goolsby enrolled in January and made a good first impression in the spring, while C'yontai Lewis and Moral Stephens are due to arrive in June.
With McGee on board, however, the freshmen won't need to be rushed into early playing time.
The focus throughout the spring was for the tight ends to learn the no-huddle spread offense brought from Duke by new coordinator Kurt Roper. His B position uses the tight ends and fullbacks in a variety of roles and disguises -- from motioning and blocking out of the backfield to inline blocking, lining up in the slot, or splitting out wide.
In every one of those wrinkles, Roper expects his players to be pass-catching threats.
"It's going to be an important position," he said during spring, "and it's going to be a playmaking position for us, so we're counting on them. ...
"I think I've seen growth. Those guys haven't done a whole lot of [receiving]. I think they enjoy doing it. I think they enjoy being part of the pass game. Because of that they go out and work hard and get better at it."
It's a work very much in progress. Now with McGee, suddenly the Gators have a more polished, vastly more experienced puzzle piece. He comes to UF with plenty of accolades.
McGee was Virginia's leading receiver last season with 43 catches for 395 yards and two touchdowns despite a lingering shoulder injury. With his speed and athleticism, the Florida coaching staff is also excited about what he brings on special teams.
McGee was drawn to Florida by Muschamp who recruited him in high school, and Roper, who led Duke's offense against Virginia while McGee took note.
"Their offense, being on the other side, was sort of fun to watch," McGee said to Scott Carter of Gatorzone.com, Florida's official athletics website. "They did a lot of cool things and really did a lot with the tight end position that excites me as a player. There’s a lot of versatility with the position to create mismatches and be allowed to do all sorts of different things."
Those feelings of eagerness and optimism are very much mutual, as both parties anticipate a sudden impact. UF coaches know they very well might have recruited a game-changer in McGee, whose graduation from UVA last month enabled him to transfer without having to sit out a year.
"To be able to have a guy that defenses know they have to account for in terms of is he a receiver, is he a tight end, can he create a three-man blocking surface?" Muschamp gushed. "That changes things in the run game. It changes things in protection and how people will attack you. ...
"We feel like he's a very talented player and a great addition for our team."