Now that spring practice is over, and we've gotten an eyeball on the personnel, a few more questions have come up that UCLA is going to need to solve.
These questions may not be pressing for this fall, but they'll become more important as the 2013 season bleeds into 2014. The key to success under Jim Mora will be maintaining a talent level so there is continuity of a sustained quality of play. That, of course, starts with recruiting, but management and evaluation of the existing players in the program is probably just as key.
We've seen in the past, both in UCLA football and basketball, how poor evaluations of a program's own players can dramatically contribute to that program's demise.
UCLA's personnel is in a critical transition period – between when it is still dealing with the aftermath of the tail end of a departed coach, which typically leaves at least some cupboards of a program bare, and a new coaching staff bringing in their own talent. Personnel decisions during this time can either be huge boosts in that transition, or mistakes that can ultimately be costly. The thing is, personnel decisions made now can not only affect the 2013 season but the 2014 season, so the UCLA coaches have to be good evaluators, have a good sense of their overall talent and personnel, and have some vision on where all the puzzle pieces fit.
Some moves can end up being like Anthony Barr being moved to linebacker last season, or former quarterback Osaar Rashaan being moved to wide receiver as a senior.
We've already looked at:
Projected Depth Analysis: D-Line
Projected Depth Analysis: D-Backs
Projected Depth Analysis: QB
Projected Depth Analysis: Linebackers.
Projected Depth Analysis: Offensive Line.
Projected Depth Analysis: Running Backs.
Now that UCLA has Eddie Vanderdoes in tow with the 2013 recruiting class, you could almost make the argument that the 2013 class was ideal, without any obvious misses.
If there's been one blind spot for UCLA's recruiting under Jim Mora, it's been the receiver position. This past cycle, UCLA nabbed just one four-star receiver in Eldridge Massington, who is actually still recovering from offseason knee surgery. The other two receivers—Darren Andrews and Jalen Ortiz (who is a running back but projected as an F receiver)—likely do not project as instant impact performers, although Andrews is thought to immediately be one of the faster players on the team. John Ross, who most thought was a significant possibility to commit to UCLA, didn't feel the level of interest from UCLA that he did from Washington, and ultimately signed with the Huskies.
It's a problem, certainly, that UCLA hasn't gotten a big-time, game-breaking threat at the receiver position. Jordan Payton (2013 Soph.), the best receiver in last year's class, will likely be a very good possession receiver, but is not an ideal downfield threat. Massington (2013 Frosh), the most highly-rated in this year's class, still looked like he was a long way off when we saw him in the spring, participating in drills through the first few days of camp and then sitting out the majority of the rest of practice.
On the bright side, UCLA does have some talent already in the program. Thanks to Rick Neuheisel, Devin Lucien (2013 RS Soph.), who is arguably the most talented receiver on the team, is just a redshirt sophomore and has three seasons of eligibility remaining. Payton projects as, potentially, a three year starter, given that he was ensconced as a starting wideout this spring. Devin Fuller (2013 Soph.), who made the switch from quarterback to slot receiver, is probably in the conversation with Lucien for most physically talented on the team. With Fuller, too, you have to project a significant upside given that he hasn't consistently played the receiver position before.
Those three each have three years of eligibility remaining, which could mean that the top level of UCLA's receiving corps is essentially settled for the foreseeable future. The issue is that, now that UCLA is running more of a spread scheme, more receivers need to play than was the case during the days of the pistol and West Coast offenses. Last year, when Lucien went down early in the year, it significantly reduced the big play potential of the receiving corps because there was little depth left on the bench to replace him. Given that, more often than not, UCLA runs three and four wide receiver sets, the Bruins need to feel comfortable with, at minimum, eight receivers.
For the 2013 season, the Bruins should be able to manage that. Between Lucien, Payton, Shaquelle Evans (2013 RS Senior), Fuller, Darius Bell (2013 RS Senior), Thomas Duarte (2013 Frosh), and Massington, UCLA has a decent corps, and the Bruins will need just one of Andrews (2013 Frosh), Ian Taubler (2013 Soph.), Kenny Walker (2013 Soph.), and Ortiz (2013 Frosh) to fill out the receiver rotation (it should be noted that we already think Taubler will play a significant amount, much like the back half of last year, but we're not sure how much of an impact he will have as a pass catcher). In 2014, though, UCLA will lose Evans and Bell, two of their better pass catchers, and will either need to develop the back end of the rotation a great deal, or get another two impact receivers.
It would have been significant for UCLA to nab a potentially instant impact receiver like Ross in this last class, not just for 2013, but more for 2014. There are some things we could see happen within the program to make up for the shortfall in production, though.
First, Jordon James (2013 RS Junior), who had some issues as a running back this past season, could see more time as a receiver going forward. UCLA, as we've gone over, has gone from very shallow to very deep at the running back position in a short amount of time, and it could give the Bruins the luxury of moving James to one of the receiver spots. If, say, James went full time to the F, Fuller could have a little more freedom to move outside, which would help to offset the loss of Evans in a year. That's not to say James will move to receiver even part-time, given that right now he's probably the front runner to start at running back this year, but it's a possibility we imagine the coaching staff could look at. If you'll recall, James spent his first year of playing time under Neuheisel playing receiver (even if all he did was run end-arounds).
Second, Mossi Johnson (2013 greyshirt), who's coming in next spring after knee surgery, may have a chance to have an instant impact at receiver, if UCLA elects to play him there. Johnson tore several ligaments in his knee in January of this year, so even with a protracted recovery period, he should be more than ready to go by next year's spring practice, and with playing time available, will likely have an opportunity to compete for a starting spot.
Still, it's not an ideal situation. Projecting Johnson to come off of knee surgery and immediately impact is probably a tall order, and projecting James to make the transition from running back to receiver is mostly speculation at this point. It's simply that those are probably the only two scenarios for adding a receiver within the program that make sense.
No matter how you slice it, though, UCLA probably would like to get at least two receivers in this upcoming class, and may take as many as three or four. Right now, the Bruins have a commitment from Barry Ware, who's a large receiver at about 6'3, 210, but with some decent quickness. UCLA also has a potential commitment in Dionte Sykes, dependent on how his grades turn out after this year and whether the Bruins have a scholarship available. Sykes, too, is a talented, if unheralded, receiver prospect, and also fits that larger receiver mold that UCLA seems to like for the Y position. Sykes could also play some wideout (Z or X) if need be.
We also know UCLA is doing well with Erik Brown, the receiver from Fontana. He is a bit more of a game breaker, having some decent top end speed and ability to get separation downfield. Brown will likely come down to Washington and UCLA. Then, there are a number of other top-level receivers who would also be options for UCLA. Jalen Brown, the receiver from Arizona, is one, and he, too, is another of those long, rangy-type of receivers. UCLA is also doing well with Malachi Dupre, the receiver from Louisiana, who just recently was made a five-star in the Scout.com rankings. The Bruins are also in the top 5 for No. 1 receiver Michiah Quick. If you then say that Adoree Jackson has a chance of coming in as a receiver, and you project that Jackson, if ranked as a receiver, would be a top five type of talent, then you'd have to say that UCLA is doing pretty well with three of the top receiver prospects in the country, which presents its own unique set of problems.
Last year, UCLA got into a bit of trouble taking commitments too early, ultimately going their separate ways with players like Ammon Barker and Sean Dowling, who committed before the end of the season. Right now, the Bruins have, to our knowledge, actually held off on taking some commitments out of a desire to not have the same situation happen, which is why it is curious that UCLA has already taken a commitment from Ware, who's a decent prospect, and produced an interesting situation with Sykes, who has an offer and seems intent on committing at the first opportunity. Given the number of talented receivers available who seem to be interested in UCLA, it might be smarter to hold off for the time being to see who wants to jump on board, because if any of those prospects mentioned in the previous paragraph wanted to come, you'd want to have spots available for them.
UCLA should be able to recruit well at receiver, given the attractive offense of Noel Mazzone and the opportunity to catch passes from a potential Heisman candidate in Brett Hundley. UCLA, too, is on the upswing as a program, which should buoy all recruiting. This upcoming cycle will be very telling as far as receiver recruiting goes, because, given the recruiting momentum being built in the program, the attractiveness of the offense, the players who are interested, and the potential playing time available, the Bruins should be able to nab a very highly rated receiver class.
Projected 2014 Depth Chart
X: Devin Lucien (RS Jr.), Mossi Johnson (Fr.), 2014 Frosh
Y: Thomas Duarte (So.), Ian Taubler (Jr.), 2014 Frosh
F: Devin Fuller (Jr.), Kenneth Walker (Jr.), Darren Andrews (RS Fr.), Jalen Ortiz (RS Fr.), Ahmaad Harris (RS SO.)
Z: Jordan Payton (Jr.), Eldridge Massington (So.), 2014 Frosh
Projected Depth Analysis: Receivers
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