UCLA has had some excellent continuity at receiver over the last three years, with the trio of Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, and Thomas Duarte recording the lion's share of the catches. Now, all three have moved on, with Payton and Fuller graduating and Duarte electing to forgo his final season of eligibility. That leaves a huge vacuum in the receiving game, and, for the first time in a while, younger receivers are going to have to emerge as legitimate options.
And that'll have to come in a new-look offense as well. It's going to be very interesting to see exactly how different the offense is this spring, but one thing is likely: there were will be fewer pure receivers on the field than was typical under Noel Mazzone. Instead, UCLA plans on using more formations that involve true tight ends and fullbacks, which will force UCLA into more two-receiver formations than in years past.
Between the three of them, Payton, Fuller, and Duarte caught over half of UCLA's complete passes last year, with Payton and Duarte catching 43.6% of all passes on their own. Replacing that group is no easy task, but there are certainly some talented options on the roster who could step up and take larger roles in the offense going forward.
A Look at Spring
It's already fair to say UCLA found a replacement for Fuller during the season last year -- Darren Andrews. Andrews caught 43 passes for 443 yards last year, and showed very good speed and quickness throughout the year, to the point where it's fair to plug him in as the starting slot receiver entering next season. The question for this spring is really how much UCLA will use the slot receiver position as compared to years past. Under Mazzone, the starting slot receiver was typically a legitimate threat to lead the team in receptions. Will Kennedy Polamalu's offense use the slot that much?
The outside receiver positions are where there are more questions, in terms of who will play. Payton started at one end, and replacing him will be a chore. From a physical perspective, Eldridge Massington is a good match, but he had a poor year last year, and just never seemed to gel completely with Josh Rosen. Perhaps another year of building a relationship with him, and a year out from behind Payton, will serve him well and allow him to emerge as a big, physical target on the outside. You could also see any one of Alex Van Dyke, Jordan Lasley, or even Aaron Sharp, if he's made some strides, fill the role of that physical, every-down receiver.
At the other outside receiver spot, Kenny Walker actually ended up starting for most of the year, and had his best year as a Bruin. He still probably dropped too many balls, but his hands were noticeably better than they had been in the past. We have to imagine, though, that he'll get pushed considerably by some of the emerging fast and quick receivers on the team. If you theorize that Andrews is going to start in the slot, then perhaps Stephen Johnson will get some work at outside receiver, and he could absolutely push Walker, since Johnson is a bit more physical and probably a more natural pass catcher, in addition to being very, very fast.
The other competitor for that spot, freshman Theo Howard, is arguably even more intriguing, since this will be our first time seeing him in a college environment. We saw him last week at UCLA, and Howard has put on probably ten pounds since his junior season, and looks to be about 180 pounds. That was key for him, as physical strength was one of the few knocks on him coming out of high school. He's both quick and fast, and has exceptional playmaking ability -- as many have written, there are legitimate comparisons between him and Marqise Lee at the same stage. If he builds a quick connection with Rosen, and gets up to speed quickly this spring, then he could absolutely compete for major playing time this fall, and possibly even a starting role.
Demetric Felton is also in early, and he brings, again, good speed and quickness to the table, as well as some versatility. If UCLA uses an F like the Bruins did under Mazzone, with a player lining up in the backfield as well as the slot at times, Felton would fit that mold pretty well. He could absolutely play either running back or receiver for UCLA, so he's a nice option to have. Cordell Broadus will also likely make his return to the field (albeit as a walk-on) and it will be interesting to see what kind of shape he's in, and how much rust there is to knock off.
Mossi Johnson completely tore up his knee last season, so we'd anticipate him missing spring practice at this point, with the hope of getting him back for fall camp. And then, obviously, there are the other freshmen coming in this fall -- Adewale Omotosho, Damian Alloway, and Dymond Lee (who'll get his first shot at quarterback) -- who could all compete for playing time this season. Omotosho and Lee in particular have the size to block on the outside, which we know UCLA prioritizes.
And then there's the matter of the tight end position. As it stands, UCLA's one tight end, Jordan Wilson, won't be on campus until June, but the beauty of that is that this spring will provide a good testing ground for other players. We'd expect Nate Iese to get a long look at tight end, and wouldn't be shocked if there's some experiment with Austin Roberts, who's a pretty big receiver, trying out at more of a true tight end role. And then we'd imagine a host of players will get a shot at playing some tight end, including guys like Cameron Griffin or even Rick Wade. The intention is to keep Wade on defense, but we have to imagine, given his tight end background and Jim Mora's propensity for playing guys both ways, that he'll get at least some sort of look on offense.
The interesting thing will be to see how much UCLA uses the tight end this spring with Wilson not yet in school and Caleb Wilson, the former USC tight end, coming in this fall. Obviously, UCLA is going to want to build its new offense and make sure guys are comfortable in it, but it could be difficult to do with no permanent idea of who is actually going to be playing tight end.
In any case, it should be a really interesting spring, both in terms of receiver battles and in terms of the tight end position, and it's probably going to be the most intriguing position to watch on offense during April.
Project Post-Spring Depth Chart
Outside: Eldridge Massington, Alex Van Dyke, Jordan Lasley, Aaron Sharp, (incoming freshman) Adewale Omotosho
Slot: Darren Andrews, Stephen Johnson, Demetric Felton, (incoming freshman) Damian Alloway
Tight End: Nate Iese, Austin Roberts, (incoming freshman) Jordan Wilson, (incoming transfer) Caleb Wilson
Outside: Kenny Walker OR Theo Howard OR Stephen Johnsonnull