Last year's receiving corps may have been the perfect depiction of addition by subtraction. Despite losing two long-time starters in Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree, the receiving corps was demonstrably better throughout the season catching the ball, blocking downfield, and running proper routes. Much of the credit has to go to a fundamentally better offensive scheme, but an equal amount of credit should go to the players themselves, particularly Shaquelle Evans, who seemed to buy in more and more as the season went on.
This spring, it was obvious to see how that level of buy-in by the whole unit has elevated their play. Evans is a much different practice player than he was a year ago, going hard in one-on-ones and appearing to be one of the more competitive players on the team. Jordan Payton dropped exactly two balls that I saw this entire spring, and used his big, strong body to get open with ease. Devin Lucien showed that he hasn't lost any of his spectacular play-making ability since his shoulder injury.
Perhaps most exciting of all, Devin Fuller not only embraced his role as a receiver, he began to thrive. He was uncoverable in one-on-ones, and is such a strong receiver that it's nearly impossible to bump him off his routes. He has great hands, good explosion, and good speed. He may have been the most impressive receiver in spring. Darius Bell once again showed the reliable hands and good route running he demonstrated last year. He and Ian Taubler are a good complement for each other, with Taubler taking the traditional tight end role and Bell being more of a receiver.
Eldridge Massington wasn't able to participate in camp to any great extent, still recovering from his ACL surgery. He suffered a setback in the last week or so of camp, and there's no word yet on how that'll affect his recovery time. Physically, it's obvious that he needs to get healthy pretty soon to get back into game shape, as he's gotten pretty thick (which is common when guys have leg injuries because they're spending more time lifting).
Jordan Payton SO: Before spring, we thought it was a foregone conclusion that a healthy Devin Lucien would start opposite Shaquelle Evans. This spring, though, it was obvious that the coaching staff really liked Payton, and it's easy to see why. He runs nearly perfect routes, and has such a strong body that there's little a defensive back can do to prevent him from getting where he wants to go. He combines that skill with decent speed and excellent hands (to the point where, again, he had a handful of drops all spring). Compared to Lucien, too, there's a level of consistency from play to play that Lucien lacks. Lucien's ceiling is probably higher than Payton's, though, and it'll be interesting to see if Lucien can come on strong over the summer to possibly overtake him.
Devin Fuller SO: In December, Fuller told us that the coaching staff had promised him a chance to compete at quarterback this spring. Luckily for everyone, both parties rethought that idea prior to April, and Fuller spent all but a few snaps at receiver. He was simply dominant during one-on-ones, flashing a unique skillset that's perfectly suited to slot receiver. On slant patterns, whenever a corner or safety played up on him, he was frequently able to take his quick, explosive movement off the snap and get open by five to seven yards. On deeper plays, he showed a combination of strength, speed, and hands that allowed him to pull in basically anything thrown in his vicinity. He actually has the versatility at this point to play any of the receiver spots, and likely will line up outside pretty frequently. Between he, Lucien, Payton, and Evans, UCLA has the makings of a pretty good receiving corps.
Kenneth Walker SO: Walker looked better over the last two weeks of the spring than he did during the first two weeks, but overall, he still didn't show the development that you'd like to see out of him. In San Bernardino last year, he looked electric at times, but he didn't have the same kind of big play moments this spring. He's a fast guy, obviously, but he is pretty raw in his route running (after all, he was a running back for most of his high school career). His hands, too, are not great at this point. Physically, there's so much to like about Walker, but he hasn't demonstrated great football skills to this point.
Where Things Project:
Coming out of spring, as we suspected would be the case, UCLA has five receivers it can count to play a great deal of snaps this fall: Evans, Payton, Lucien, Fuller, and Bell. Taubler had quite a few drops during camp, so for now, you'd probably guess that he'll have a larger, but similar role to what he had last year (mostly as a blocking tight end). Massington didn't participate in much of any team drills, and didn't look particularly explosive while wearing the knee brace. There's not much you can take from that, but he did look a little thick, so that's something that will need to be corrected before he comes back.
With this offense, you'd ideally like to have between six and eight non-running back receivers that you can count on. Last year, eight players who primarily played receiver caught at least ten passes, and we'd have to figure something similar will happen this year. Right now, UCLA has five reliable options, and the coaching staff will probably try to figure out three more. If we had to project, given the way running back depth has changed since the start of spring, Steven Manfro will likely move back to the F receiver position, freeing up Fuller to play at many different spots. Additionally, Walker, although he's still raw, will probably fill a role similar to the one he filled last year (11 receptions).
Really, it comes down to filling the large, strange shoes of Joe Fauria. As much as we like Bell, he's not an every-down receiver, both due to his stature and his durability issues. Taubler hasn't shown the ability to catch consistently at this point in his career. That leaves us with Thomas Duarte. If UCLA is to get the same kind of production out of the Y position that it got last year, Duarte is likely going to need to come in ready to play significant snaps this season, and catch somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 passes.
Our Best Guess Depth Chart for Nevada
Jordan Payton SO
Devin Lucien RS SO
Kenneth Walker SO
Darren Andrews FR
Darius Bell RS SR
Thomas Duarte FR
Ian Taubler SO (will play significantly as a blocker)
Devin Fuller SO
Steven Manfro RS SO
Jalen Ortiz FR
Shaquelle Evans RS SR
Eldridge Massington FR
Logan Sweet RS SO
Spring Review: Receivers
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