This past season was an awakening of sorts for the UCLA receiving corps after experiencing two years of downfield blocking in the pistol. Instead of frequent two receiver sets, UCLA ran mostly a spread look, with between three and five receivers on any given play. UCLA also de-emphasized the traditional tight end role in place of a more receiver-type Y position. What resulted was one of UCLA's more effective passing offenses in recent memory.
No receiver was what you'd describe as "featured", which probably speaks to the general talent level of the receivers as much as it does to the design of the offense. Devin Lucien, who is arguably the most talented receiver on the team who was turning into a consistent deep threat, sat out the majority of the year with a collarbone injury. The next best receiver, and certainly the most consistent, was Shaquelle Evans, who combined good route running and pass catching with an excellent feel for downfield blocking (no doubt helped by his experience in the dreaded pistol).
Joe Fauria, at the Y position, was a force in the red zone, and acted as an easy safety valve for Brett Hundley when a first down was needed. After UCLA's offensive coaching staff figured out that he could be thrown fades in the end zone on virtually any red zone play, the offense's conversion in the red zone improved greatly. Darius Bell, who missed many games this year, was effective in his time during the year, but didn't quite play to the level he displayed in practice.
Steven Manfro was the starter at the F to begin the year, but a combination of a shoulder injury and some poor play gave the job to Devin Fuller by the end of the season. Fuller, who started the year as a quarterback, switched to receiver early in the season and showed flashes of ability. He's a smooth athlete, with good speed, and it's clear that his experience as a quarterback put him a cut above the typical freshman in learning how to run routes and the nuances of being a receiver.
A Look at Spring
The obvious spot that needs to be filled is the starting Y spot, now that Joe Fauria has graduated. Darius Bell and Ian Taubler are likely to figure prominently in the battle this spring, but, in fairness, there's enough built into the offense that both could have a big role with both starting depending on the situation. Bell is obviously a smaller, more receiver-type Y, while Taubler is a bigger, more-blocking type. However, it'd probably be a mistake to assume that Taubler is just a blocker, although that's all he did last year during games. He actually has a decent set of hands, and now that he's had an offseason of work, could run away with the competition in the spring. John Young, who tore his patellar tendon in August, figures to still be recovering this spring, and will likely be limited. Of course, Thomas Duarte is coming in August, and he could show enough to factor in as well.
Perhaps the next most exciting thing to watch this spring will be the return of Devin Lucien to full health. Lucien tried to make it back at the end of last year, but didn't garner much playing time and looked like he just wasn't quite up to speed after coming back from the injury. Given that he appeared to be the best receiver on the team during his redshirt year, and was probably the best last year, we'd expect him to seize his rightful place as a starting receiver this spring.
Freshman Eldridge Massington, who arrived on campus early to rehab his torn ACL, will be limited during the spring, but should participate in some of the non-contact drills. His straight ahead speed has been much talked about, and it'll be interesting to see exactly how fast he is. Physically, he's been able to participate in many of the offseason workouts, since he enrolled in January, so he figures to be a cut above the usual freshman in that department, which could serve him well in being ready for the season come August.
Fuller will have an entire spring dedicated to playing receiver after an offseason of getting acclimated to the idea of playing the position full time, so the expectation is that he'll have made some big strides from his limited, but impressive, time at the F last year. Also at the F, Kenny Walker had a typical freshman year, struggling at times with getting used to the speed of the game. With a year under his belt, he will also be one to watch this spring to see how much improvement he's made.
What to Watch For
*Is Lucien ready for the spotlight? If there is one knock on Lucien so far in his UCLA career, it's that he tends to let his concentration lapse at times. Knowing this coaching staff, it's a virtual certainty that the way players practice will influence how they're used during games, so a consistent level of focus from Lucien will be important for his development. The tools are all there, and this spring should give him the opportunity to show that he's ready to take on a big role in the offense.
*Can Fuller build on his play last season? Fuller is clearly a talented athlete, and has the potential to be an impact player in the slot. Given that he'd never played receiver consistently prior to last year, there's a very high upper limit to how good of a receiver he could be. One thing we'll want to see is a little better explosion from him, which was lacking a bit last year. If he has improved with his explosion, he could also factor into the returner competition, as he did at the end of last season.
*Will Kenny Walker make a leap? Walker struggled at times last year, looking a little unprepared for the speed of the college game. He didn't show great vision, but again, that can be due to just not being used to playing against college level athletes. Now that he's had an offseason, and he's been able to watch tape and play through a full season, he should be more prepared, and this spring will be a good test for him. If his vision has improved, his natural speed should make him an asset in the receiving corps.
Projected Spring Depth Chart
Shaquelle Evans (6'1, 211)
Jordan Payton (6'1, 210)
Tyler Scott (6'2, 205)
Devin Fuller (5'11, 194)
Kenny Walker (5'9, 175)
Roosevelt Davis (5'3, 151)
Ahmaad Harris (5'4, 157)
Darius Bell (5'11, 216)
Ian Taubler (6'4, 252)
John Young (6'3, 238)
Devin Lucien (6'0, 192)
Eldridge Massington (6'1, 206)
Logan Sweet (6'0, 186)
Spring Preview: Receivers
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