A closer look at TE M.J. McFarland

One of the hottest names of the first half of spring football is 6-6, 260-pound redshirt freshman tight end M.J. McFarland, who made big plays in each of the last three spring practices, including touchdown receptions in the final two.
I had a chance to talk to El Paso El Dorado coach Jim Althoff, who coached McFarland in high school, to get some of the background on this emerging star.
Amazingly, McFarland didn't even want to play football in high school - and didn't play his freshman season, despite Althoff's efforts after watching McFarland develop into a solid athlete in middle school.
McFarland was all about basketball. It was only thanks to McFarland's close friend, Talon Morris, who convinced McFarland to try out for football with him as a sophomore that McFarland took to the gridiron.
"I kid M.J. all the time a friend of his - Talon Morris - came out for football, and M.J. wasn't sure he wanted to tag along," Althoff said. "Talon told him he wanted to try out for football but didn't want to do it alone. Because M.J. took the chance to come along with Talon, look at what's ahead of him.
"M.J. was more of a basketball player who discovered football. When he was coming over from his junior high, I tried like heck to get him to play football, and he just wanted to be a basketball player. If not for Talon pulling him over here, I don't know what would have happened."
Ironic twist: Talon Morris is now playing basketball at a junior college in California. McFarland is the one playing football.
Althoff said McFarland never played with his hand on the ground at El Dorado.
"We were a spread, wide-open offense," Althoff said. "He was our main target. He caught 89 balls his junior season and over 100 balls his senior season. For a 6-5 wideout that has great hands and can run a little bit, it was definitely a mismatch every Friday night."
Even though McFarland didn't play with his hand on the ground, Althoff said Texas being honest with McFarland about wanting him to play with his hand on the ground as a tight end was very appealing to him.
"What helped him with putting his hand on the ground was Texas being up front with him during recruiting in telling him he was going to be a tight end," Althoff said. "He knew from the get-go what he was being recruited as. There was no telling him, 'We'll see if you can stand up.' They told him they wanted him as a tight end.
"He could see that was a good way to go because teams in the NFL are going in that direction with the tight end."
McFarland enrolled early at Texas last year and redshirted last season fully knowing he needed time to get used to playing with his hand on the ground.
"He's a mentally tough kid," Althoff said. "He's the kind of kid who had everything in order so he could graduate early and head down to Austin as soon as Christmas break came about.
Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said McFarland has shown already that he has a strong love of the game and wants to be great.
"M.J. McFarland redshirted last year and we're seeing good things from him," Harsin said. "He's done a nice job.
"As he repeats everything in the second half of spring, we'll see where he takes the next step offensively for us. But he's a big dude who's physical. He can run. He's made some catches out there. And he is into it. He enjoys practice. He enjoys preparing out there, and we really like that."
Althoff said Texas couldn't have found a better person in McFarland.
"When God was handing out all the different prizes, M.J. happened to get it all because not only is he very talented, he's a super smart kid in the classroom and he has great character because of his mom and dad," Althoff said.
"His mom came to practice very often. His dad was a military man based at Fort Bliss and was not always around. Mom made sure M.J. was a good citizen when his dad was gone."
McFarland was one of the most popular kids at El Dorado.
"For three years, he was the face of the school," Althoff said. "He didn't have to be the star, it just happened that way.
"He was part of the principal's advisory committee. I brought him a few times to talk to the junior high kids. Great character."
Althoff said he learned about McFarland's character first-hand during recruiting.
"There were a lot of schools that contacted me," Althoff said. "Texas Tech and once M.J. committed, several schools stepped forward, including Oregon, which called many times about M.J.
"Those schools would call and say, 'How committed is he?' But M.J.'s character was such that once he committed, that was it. Texas A&M, Colorado, USC - the most persistent after he committed were probably Texas Tech and Oregon. But he never wavered from Texas."
I asked Althoff what Texas fans can expect from McFarland this fall.
"He's mentally tough and ready for the challenge," Althoff said. "The redshirt season is tough, and M.J. got a lot out of the redshirt year. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he got to work. We're all excited about the chance he has."