UCLA lost Thomas Duarte to the NFL Draft this week, and it was one of the more surprising of the junior decisions, more because it would have been so unexpected before the start of the season than anything. Duarte had a great year, and emerged as a Josh Rosen's second favorite target this year behind Jordan Payton. We were actually anticipating Duarte returning in our story last week breaking down the depth chart for next season, and now his departure requires some rethinking about the roster for next year.
There are a few things to consider, though. First, with Kennedy Polamalu replacing Noel Mazzone as offensive coordinator, there's a chance that the offense could look significantly different than it did last year, which might very well mean that UCLA doesn't feature the Y slot receiver nearly as much as it did in the past. Much will depend on recruiting, and who UCLA is able to land as a true tight end in addition to Jordan Wilson, but there is a chance that the Y won't be nearly as featured next year.
If the Y remains a key piece of the offense, one of likely Austin Roberts or Aaron Sharp is going to have to make a leap to become the starter. We liked what we saw out of Roberts in fall camp last year, but he was still working back from the ACL tear. Typically, those injuries can take anywhere from one to two years before a player looks exactly like he looked pre-injury, so it'll be interesting to see what Roberts is able to do this spring. Sharp was also impressive at times in fall camp, but he's just a year removved from being a quarterback, so it might be a little much to expect him to suddenly start for a team that hopes to contend for a conference championship.
The Y doesn't necessarily need to be a featured part of the offense, though. The bigger key is determining who is going to take the mantle as the team's leading receiver and Rosen's number one target next season. The Bruins are now down three of their top receivers from last year in Payton, Duarte, and Devin Fuller, and actually return just one of the top five receivers from last season in Darren Andrews. Andrews is a good slot receiver, but it's hard to envision him catching 70 or 80 passes next season like Payton did this year. That slot was supposed to be Duarte's.
There are some talented candidates, but they are largely unproven. Perhaps the most experienced option is Eldridge Massington, but Massington didn't have a great year this season and didn't seem perfectly in-sync with Rosen during games. Alex Van Dyke, now entering his junior season, could also make some more strides in his development and become a reliable target for Rosen on the outside. Freshman Theo Howard could also crack the starting lineup by virtue of his speed and play-making ability, and could become a favored target for Rosen. Stephen Johnson would be another option, with his speed making him a particularly attractive deep threat. Kenny Walker had a nice year, but it's hard to imagine him suddenly becomin reliable enough to be targeted at the rate of a Payton or a Duarte. At this point, our best guess is that UCLA will have to turn to more of a committee approach than this season, when Duarte and Payton were the clear primary targets for Rosen.
It's definitely a more precarious position for UCLA's receiving corps than UCLA could have anticipated heading into last season. There's some talent in the depth chart, but little of it has shown on the field. This spring will be key in determining who among the group of receivers who have spent time behind Payton, Duarte, and Fuller the last few years are ready to shine.