It's almost fall football camp, right? To kick off our camp previews, we took a look at the status of the UCLA offensive line heading into August, analyzed the unsettled running back position after the loss of Johnathan Franklin, and broke down the quarterback position, and whether it's possible that Hundley could leave after this year. Now, we'll take a look at how UCLA stacks up at receiver.
Eldridge Massington enrolled early this past spring, but was still limited due to an ACL tear suffered last July. During the spring, he actually had a bit of a setback in his recovery after spending the first week going through non-contact drills. From what we saw of him, he looked like the typical hard-working player who was dealing with an ACL injury in that he had built up his upper body quite a bit, and looked a step slow because of it. From what we've heard, he may be limited again in fall camp as he works to get back to full strength in the knee.
We've heard that Ian Taubler, who did a nice job at Y last year as the team's only real blocking tight end, will move to defensive end this upcoming season. We think the move could be a good one for UCLA, as Taubler can likely still fill in on certain blocking packages (goal-line, short-yardage) while also using his talents more effectively on the defensive end. With Thomas Duarte and Darius Bell filling the pass-catching role at Y, and Barry Ware and Dionte Sykes possibly waiting in the wings as potential Y receivers, Taubler might have been squeezed out of a larger role on offense.
Devin Fuller, who had talked about potentially playing quarterback in the spring after switching to slot receiver in the fall, reversed course just before the start of camp in April, and spent the entirety of spring (aside from a few packages) at receiver. He was very impressive, and was nearly uncoverable in 1-on-1s, flashing some excellent quickness and instinctive ability to get open. We suspect, too, that he'll have some versatility this year on offense, lining up wide, in the slot, at the Y, and in the backfield depending on the play.
Devin Lucien returned to full health after breaking his collarbone last year. Lucien, like Fuller, was impressive in the spring, and those two could be UCLA's most talented receivers heading into the 2013 season.
Kenneth Walker, who showed flashes during practice last year that didn't materialize in games, underwent back surgery this offseason and will miss the 2013 season. Walker was another versatile guy who spent portions of spring ball in the slot and out wide. While we didn't project him having a huge impact this year, the loss does put some strain on the unit.
We've also heard rumblings that John Young will retire from football. Young suffered from a series of injuries over the past two years and hasn't been fully healthy in well over a year. Again, though, we didn't expect that he'd play significantly this year.
Projected Pre-Fall Starters
Lucien and Fuller might be the two most talented receivers on the team heading into the season, but that doesn't mean both will start. Throughout the spring, in fact, Jordan Payton started over Lucien at the wide receiver spot opposite Shaquelle Evans, and looked good. Payton showed the best hands in spring ball, with surprising quickness and athleticism. Although Lucien has more upside, since he's a better athlete, unless Lucien makes some strides before camp, there's a good chance that Payton holds on to his spot.
Evans, like we said, will start at the other receiver position. He was UCLA's best receiver last season not named Joseph Fauria, and actually turned into a credible downfield threat toward the end of the year after Lucien went down. He was also UCLA's best blocking receiver all year, providing the key block on at least three different touchdown runs. If there's one knock on Evans, it's that he has a bit of an attitude problem, earning some cheap personal fouls last year and pretty viciously berating Ishmael Adams during spring this year.
Fuller will start in the slot, but we imagine he'll be moved around between the different receiver spots throughout the year. Fuller was a complete mismatch for every safety and corner he matched up against in spring. On quick slants, he was absolutely devastating, frequently getting five or six yards open by the time he'd catch the ball. What's most impressive about Fuller is his strength. Even when the defensive backs would line up just across the line of scrimmage from him, he wouldn't get bumped off his route. Between he, Payton, and Evans, UCLA will have its best route running in quite some time, as all three are heady players with above-average strength.
At the Y, like last year, you'll likely see situational usage of different players. There isn't a big red zone target like Fauria, so expect to see those fades and timing routes farmed out to the rest of the receiving corps. For now, we'll slot Darius Bell in as the starter, since he has the experience and pass-catching ability. Although he's only about 5'10, he actually is a pretty good possession receiver, using his still-wide body to create space over the middle. He also has very good hands. Bell, though, has injury issues, and likely can't take on the full starter's workload. Thomas Duarte, if we had to guess, will have the opportunity to split reps with Bell this fall, if he shows he's ready in August. At a legitimate 6'3 or so, Duarte can provide a bit more of the size mismatch that UCLA is missing now that Fauria is gone.
Between the best four receivers, UCLA actually has quite a bit of pass-catching talent. Evans, Payton, Fuller, and Lucien, when you compare them to the other schools in the league, make up one of the better top fours in the Pac-12. In this offense, though, you need somewhere between eight and ten guys, minimum, who can catch the ball. That's where it'll get tricky for UCLA.
Like we said before, Fuller, Lucien, Evans, and Payton make up a pretty good foursome. Throw in Bell, who provides some known pass-catching ability, and you have a nice nucleus to build from. The trick for UCLA will be coming up with the other three to five guys.
Duarte probably has the best chance to make an impact behind Bell. If we're being realistic, Bell probably won't be able to play more than half of each game this year, which leaves a good number of reps for Duarte. He flashed good hands in high school, and actually is a better fit for this offense as a Y than he would be as a traditional tight end in another offense. His size, too, could prove to be a significant asset.
In terms of Massington, as we said with Damien Thigpen in the running back piece, it's really hard for a player to come back from an ACL and immediately trust his knee again. Massington didn't look like he was having too much trouble laterally when we saw him in spring, so that's a good sign as far as the mental side goes. It would be a huge boon to UCLA if Massington could somehow provide a significant contribution this season. He would likely slot in behind Evans.
Outside of those seven, the situation gets a bit more precarious. Incoming freshman Darren Andrews could have a chance to compete for playing time. Supposedly one of the faster players on the team already, Andrews could provide another deep threat. Jalen Ortiz, who is listed as a running back, is much more likely an F in this offense. Earlier on, we thought he'd be a redshirt candidate, but he actually looked more filled out when we saw him on campus, so there's a chance he could compete for playing time.
Logan Sweet and Tyler Scott both have the talent to fill in at times at both receiver spots. Sweet has a bit more shake and speed, while Scott is much more of that big target-type of receiver. Both have good hands.
UCLA would like have at least two more reliable receivers this year, in addition to the top six of Lucien, Fuller, Evans, Payton, Bell, and Duarte. As we said in the running back preview, we could easily see a scenario where Steven Manfro, after recovering from his shoulder injury, switches back to receiver after spending the spring in running back meetings. With the depth at running back much better than it was prior to spring, Manfro will likely have a better chance of seeing the field if he switches back to the F, which could free up Fuller to fill in more at the outside positions.
You also can't discount the idea that Damien Thigpen makes his return and factors significantly into the receiving game as well. Again, ACL injuries are tricky, but if Thigpen can make it back by the end of August, say, and he seems to have full strength in his knee, he could find some time at the F.
What It All Means
There's no replacing Joe Fauria. Having a 6'8 safety valve who's open at all times is a luxury in any offense, and Brett Hundley certainly used it to good effect last season. Now, UCLA's offense may need to get a touch more creative and diverse this upcoming season to take advantage of the slightly more diffuse talents of its receiving corps.
We could easily see Fuller stepping into that vacuum left by Fauria. Obviously, they are very different players, but Fuller has an ability to get open on short routes that could prove to be an excellent dump off option for Hundley when he's under fire. Fuller also has the ability to take a short pass a long way, as long as he's got a head of steam. If we had one concern with this past fall, it's that UCLA used Fuller in too many situations where he was catching the ball at a full stop and then had to make guys miss in order to gain yards. That's not really his game. When he can catch the ball on the run, though, he can make guys miss with ease.
Payton, too, could provide some help in replacing Fauria. He's not as big as Fauria (although he is a big target), but he has similarly good hands and better speed. He caught nearly everything thrown his way in the spring.
We expect the same basic contributions from Evans as we got last year, but we expect to see a leap from Lucien, even if he ends up not starting. Last year, in just the few games he played before his injury, he was UCLA's best deep threat, and showed a flair for playmaking that few on the team have.
Losing Fauria is obviously a big blow to UCLA's offense, but we expect that the loss will force UCLA's offensive masterminds to be more creative, which is always a good thing. UCLA has some dynamic talent among its top receivers—the question of the year will be how well the coaches put them into position to make plays.
Reciever Depth Chart Going Into Fall Camp
X: Jordan Payton, So., Devin Lucien, RS So., Logan Sweet RS So.
F Devin Fuller, So., Darren Andrews Fr., Jalen Ortiz Fr.
Y Darius Bell, RS Sr., Thomas Duarte Fr., Ian Taubler So. (blocking)
Z Shaquelle Evans, RS Sr., Eldridge Massington Fr., Tyler Scott RS So.
Fall Camp Preview: Receivers
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