Watching Nelson Rosario attempting to catch every pass one handed last year, and Taylor Embree looking the part of a below average possession receiver, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the talent behind them must have been abysmal. If they were the starters, how rough were the backups?
As it turns out, the backups are (were?) pretty damn good. Even last year, it was pretty obvious that Shaquelle Evans, Devin Lucien, and Ricky Marvray (not to mention Josh Smith) were, at the very least, better than Embree, and probably close to Rosario, when you factor in consistent effort. As we've gone over a few times, Lucien redshirted, and it didn't make a ton of sense from a talent perspective. Marvray didn't get much work at all last year. Evans was the one of the three who actually played a significant amount, but he probably should have been starting all season.
Anyway, we knew heading into spring ball that those three were probably going to look surprisingly good, and make a lot of people question the previous coaching staff's talent evaluation skills. What we didn't quite expect to see was Jerry Johnson break out as the star of the bunch.
Johnson, to put it mildly, has not been lucky at UCLA. His first year he redshirted, and his second year he played sparingly, on a team that wasn‘t deep in talent at receiver. There were rumblings around the program that he was not favored by the coaching staff. He finally started to see action his third year, when he played in eight games and then suffered a left ankle fracture. Last year, he sat out the majority of the year while recovering from the ankle injury.
This spring, though, Johnson showed talent that, heretofore, had been entirely dormant. Lookin at him, it makes sense. At 6'3, and about 220, he looks like he should be a stud, and he's gifted athletically, with a good vertical and above average speed. And throughout spring ball, he seemed to finally put it together. There was a stretch of practices during the second and third weeks where it seemed like every practice he was making a handful of plays of the how'd-he-do-that variety. In one specific practice, during 1 on 1's in the end zone right in front of the bleacher, Johnson put on a show, catching one pass from behind the back of Sheldon Price with one hand, and another over his shoulder while falling out of the back of the end zone. But really, that was the consistent level for most of spring ball. If you were making a list of guys whose stock rose this spring, Johnson would have to be at the top.
Marvray, unfortunately, got hurt very early on in spring, and didn't have much of a chance to show another example of the abject failure of the previous coaching staff to evaluate receiving talent. In his week or so, though, he managed to impress Coach Mora enough that Mora consistently referred to him as a warrior. Marvray was working primarily at the X and Z, but you have to figure that he's one that they'll want to put at multiple spots, given his quickness.
Lucien and Evans looked extremely good at times, but also showed a few flaws. Lucien spent the first two weeks of practice looking pretty close to uncoverable. He's not the fastest, tallest, longest, or quickest, but he's good enough in all of those areas that, when combined with his exceptional hands and body control, he's an extremely effective receiver. Evans has more athleticism, and he, conversely, spent the last two weeks of spring ball catching most everything thrown his way.
The issues for both are somewhat similar, although not entirely. Lucien seemed to get into his own head a little bit toward the middle of spring ball, which could have been due to a variety of things. His funk seemed to coincide with Anthony Jefferson starting to lock him up during one practice, but he also banged his knee around the same time, which seemed to bother him throughout camp. Whatever it was, he wasn't quite the same through the last three weeks of camp (until the spring game, when he was one of the stars), dropping more passes, not running routes as quickly, and just looking like he was struggling with his focus. He even had one practice where he dropped three punts. It seems pretty clear that improving on the mental aspect of the game will be a key point in his development.
Through the first week or so, Evans looked like he might be one of the ones who was having trouble buying into the new tempo and attitude, and it took some verbal coaching through the first few practices to get him up to speed. He seemed to get much more in sync with the new tune throughout the last few weeks, so that might be a problem that was nipped in the bud.
At the Y, Joseph Fauria, Darius Bell, and John Young sat out the majority of spring ball, so we didn't see a whole lot from them. In the three practices in which Fauria participated, he was a nightmare for the secondary, with no one who can really stay with him among the linebackers, and no one among the safeties who can match up with him physically. That wasn't surprising.
The surprising thing was Bell being a matchup problem himself. Last year, Bell was about 220 pounds playing scout receiver, and he wasn't particularly fast or quick. He and Damien Holmes apparently went on the same diet, as Bell came into the spring looking like he was about 205 or so, with much less fat on his body. Even with the body changes, what Bell was able to do in a few practices was pretty astonishing. First, he's got extremely good hands, especially in traffic. There were a number of times through the first few days of practice where, with a safety draped on him, he was able to use his still good-sized body to box out and make the catch. He also showed decent leaping ability, catching a few balls that seemed like they were meant for Fauria. It'd be far fetched to expect a guy to go from 5th string quarterback and scout receiver to making heavy contributions in the passing game the next year, but he showed this spring that he deserves a spot in the rotation.
Tyler Scott had a good spring practice, and it's one of those unstated benefits of having guys hurt or having little depth: you get to see exactly how the backups look with increased work. Scott flourished. He's not a fast guy, at about 6'2, 215 or so, but he's a pretty good route runner and has good hands. I think it‘d be difficult for him to get separation against college level cornerbacks, as he was matched up most frequently against UCLA's second and third stringers, but he might have a chance to get a few snaps this year, just given how shallow the receiving corps is. Coach Yarber still wants him to get a little leaner, as he‘s got kind of a baseball body, so it'll be interesting to see how he looks in the fall. He is playing baseball this summer, so that might not leave him much time to work on the football side of things.
After that, Jerry Rice Jr. sat out the majority of spring ball with a shoulder injury, and didn't do a ton prior to that. Logan Sweet had his moments during the spring, but Scott probably overtook him in the Andrew Baumgartner Memorial race for walk on most likely to play.
So, to recap: Jerry Johnson looked very good this spring. With a few caveats, Devin Lucien and Shaquelle Evans both looked very good this spring. Prior to his back injury, Ricky Marvray looked very good this spring. Joseph Fauria and Darius Bell both looked good before their injuries. Even a walk on or two managed to look decent.
Which leads to two things. First, the ever present question: what the heck was going on with the last coaching staff? Either these guys looked this good last year, and the coaches blew the evaluation, or each of them hadn't developed, and the coaches blew the development. I lean mostly toward the first one, but it's probably a little of both (with, sure, some unfortunate injuries mixed in).
And second: UCLA could use some healthy defensive backs.
We'll be tackling the "F" with the running backs, since it's similar personnel.
Spring Review: Receivers and Ys
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