Tight ends a spring bright spot

Jake McGee’s injury in last year’s season opener eliminated any chance of the tight ends playing a big role in the passing game. One year later, the Gators look much better at the position.

The Gators were prepared to feature the tight end position in 2014. Jake McGee was ready to make an impact in the passing game, but after his season-ending injury in the first game of the year, it forced Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook into roles they weren’t capable of handling.

They combined for 26 catches, 237 yards and three touchdowns on the season, but the most memorable moment came when Westbrook dropped a potential game-winning touchdown against LSU.

This season, the position is more equipped to handle a role in the passing game.

"The tight ends help us out big in this offense,” Florida quarterback Treon Harris said. “They’re one of the first progression reads. We’ve got to get them the ball quick and just get it to them."

It starts with McGee’s return. He didn’t participate in the live portions of spring practice, but the sixth-year senior looked healthy when running routes and catching passes during individual drills. With 769 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in his career with underwhelming quarterback play at Virginia, the Florida coaches have a good feel for what McGee can do on the field.

What makes this year’s group different is the players behind McGee on the depth chart.

A trio of second-year tight ends -- DeAndre Goolsby, C’yontai Lewis and Moral Stephens -- will all need to make an impact this fall. Goolsby was the only one to play last season, but he didn’t record any stats while playing in six games last season. He also looked like the most ready second-year tight end during the open portions of spring practice and showed that growth in the spring game with two catches for 40 yards.

“Yeah there was good stuff, but there’s things that need to be worked on,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said about Goolsby. “Another guy that needs to understand the importance of every detail in your life and how that’s going to help you be successful. He’s a guy that definitely can play. Our first scrimmage he was our leading receiver and had a lot of catches and had a lot of production, and obviously (Saturday) he did some good things.

“We’re expecting big things out of him, and out of those guys around him as we get into our shifts, multiple formations, all that kind of stuff, especially in our different tempos out of personnel groups. He’s got to be a big part of that.”

Lewis was the other tight end that broke out in the spring game after impressive practices. The redshirt freshman had four catches for 54 yards and one touchdown during the spring game.

“He’s had a pretty good spring,” McElwain said. “You’ve got some guys who will have a chance to be pretty good there and give us an opportunity. C’yontai’s one of them. He really enjoys practicing. It’s important to him. He’s still making some declaration and communication mistakes, especially in the run game, but he’s a guy who’s important. He’ll be able to play for us. I’m excited about that group.”

Stephens looks more like a blocking tight end, but those will be important this fall with inexperienced Florida’s offensive line. Add in a talented freshman like Daniel Imatorbhebhe, and the Gators will have their deepest talent pool at the tight end position in a long time.

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