STORRS - In the midst of an intense 11-on-11 drill this week at the Shenkman Center, Aaron McLean picked a good time to make a play.
The senior appeared to knife through his defensive counterparts on the UConn football team, beating one of the Huskies’ safeties rather badly and hauling in a pass for a touchdown.
McLean, who made the move from wide receiver to tight end earlier this spring, is seemingly enjoying his transition thus far. Those on the other side of the ball, however, are not.
“He’s a tight end now! You can’t let him do that!” one of UConn’s defensive coaches bellowed after McLean’s move.
The defensive back who was beaten on the play was smart enough not to point out to his coach that just because McLean switched positions, doesn’t mean he got any slower.
In fact, that’s exactly what the Huskies are counting on when the 2018 season begins.
They’re hoping McLean’s wide receiver speed and route running ability will be too much for whatever linebacker or burly safety he’s matched up with in the passing game now.
“That’s definitely helped me so far in spring practice. Since I have the receiver background, playing it the last three years, I know all the route techniques and how to get off press and all that stuff,” McLean said.
McLean caught 31 passes for 472 yards last season as a junior with the Huskies, the latter of which was second on the team.
But when the 6-foot-5, 225-pound McLean took a look at the system new offensive coordinator John Dunn was installing, he had a thought.
“I was like looking through the offense this year and I was looking at what I knew I could do,” McLean said. “And if felt that tight end was a better fit for me this year. I feel I can help more here.”
The coaching staff was happy to oblige the Southborough, Massachusetts native. UConn has a need at the position, with longtime standouts Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom about to graduate.
Junior Tyler Davis, who has also played some wide receiver with the Huskies, is potentially the Huskies’ top tight end now. Sophomore Jay Rose and junior Zordan Holman are also in the mix.
And the depth was reduced further this week when Ryan Fitton, a sophomore from Staples High in Westport, opted to leave the team.
UConn is likely to need McLean’s services early and often in the coming season.
“I’ve been impressed,” UConn coach Randy Edsall said of McLean’s move. “He’s picked it up really well. He’s doing a good job of blocking, too.”
He’s much smaller than his counterparts at the position now, and even more so than many of the defenders he’s attempting to block. But McLean is holding his own in the blocking department, the coaches insist.
“He’s probably more an off-the-ball tight end, but he can do all those things,” Edsall said. “He has a good feel for getting his hands inside. And he did a good job in the board drills.”
The veteran has produced many pancake blocks or knock out blows with his blocking yet but they might be coming.
“I’m trying to focus on technique right now because I’m smaller right now. I’m like 225, 226. Until I gain weight over the summer, I have to focus on technique. I’m not going to beat a lot of guys on strength,” McLean said.
That’s a fact a few of his new position mates have brought up on occasion.
“Zordan calls me Skeletor because I’m the skinniest guy in the room,” McLean says with a laugh. “But give me a few months and I’ll be up there with them.”
Until then, he can focus on making the linebackers who try to cover him get lost in his exhaust fumes.
UConn will hold its annual spring game April 14 at Pratt & Whitney Stadium. The Huskies begin the 2018 season Aug. 30 against Central Florida, also in East Hartford.
McLean may not feel like he’s completely changed into a tight end, but the transformation is progressing nicely and he expects to be ready by August.
“I’m not used to it yet but I’m getting there,” McLean said. “I think the biggest difficulty is learning the run game stuff. Tight ends have a lot more responsibility there.
“But as far as running routes, it’s a lot of the stuff I did last year in the old offense. I just have to get used to getting into a three-point stance, and getting used to pulling and all the gap rules.”