Wide Receiver/Tight End Review
Top Performer: Ishmael Adams
This one came out of pretty much nowhere. We heard rumbling that Adams was going to switch to receiver just prior to the start of spring practice, but we thought that for sure there would be significant growing pains as he learned to play the position at the college level. Instead, he was probably UCLA's best playmaker at receiver this spring, generally making at least one "Wow" play every practice that we saw. His explosiveness really shows up on offense, and his natural vision, which seemed to fail him at times last year at kick returner, was once again very good this spring. He's going to be a mismatch this year, and UCLA has already shown a desire to get him the ball in a variety of ways. He had a couple of drops this spring, so a summer spent doing very little beyond catching footballs would be a summer well spent, but his knack for the spectacular play could see him starting sooner rather than later.
Most Improved: Kenny Walker
We've seen steady improvement for Walker over the last couple of years and this spring was no different. Where before you could say that Walker was more of a track guy playing football than an actual receiver, he has really polished his route-running and become a much more consistent receiver, with the ability to run a wide variety of routes rather than just a deep streak. His hands, while still not perfect, have improved as well, and over the last two weeks of spring ball we didn't see more than a couple of drops. If he can limit his drops, his speed makes him an absolute asset at receiver. He was very tough to cover all spring, and we'd imagine that will continue against opposing teams this fall -- if he can actually catch the ball, he could have a big year.
UCLA is in an interesting spot with its receiver corps. Obviously, the Bruins lost a ton of experience and talent this offseason with the departures of Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, and Thomas Duarte, so finding at least two go-to guys this spring was a must. The interesting thing is that, even with all of those departures, it's actually fairly easy to argue that UCLA's receiving corps now is significantly more explosive than UCLA's receiver corps last season. Adams, Walker, freshman Theo Howard, sophomore Stephen Johnson, and Darren Andrews give UCLA a more pervasive speed element at receiver than we can remember in quite some time.
Andrews was good this spring, perhaps the most consistent, and had days when he was the best receiver of that particular session. He has continued to mature, and looked more polished than he did last season.
For the first few spring practices, Howard was the revelation. Having come in early (in January) and still really being a high school senior, we didn't necessarily expect that much of him -- thinking he'd be overwhelmed and would need some time to acclimate. But he jumped right in, and made some spectacular plays the first few sessions. He showed some great burst and elusiveness, and looked fairly comfortable running routes. As spring practice wore on, he didn't make the standout play as much -- it literally felt like he didn't get the ball thrown to him nearly as much in team drills, or in individuals he didn't get many catchable balls thrown to him. He still, though, was exceptional in using his quickness to get separation. He showed enough, and if he just makes some conservative advances between now and fall, we expect Howard to make an impact on the 2016 season as a true freshman.
The problem with the group, though, is that only Andrews, really, has shown an ability to be a consistent receiver from game to game. Walker has been up-and-down his entire time at UCLA, Adams was a cornerback, Johnson flipped between corner and receiver this spring, and Howard is a true freshman who still needs to develop as a route-runner, blocker, and all of the little things that go into being a receiver. Those five guys have a ton of potential between them, but it's hard to say with any certainty (again, beyond Andrews) if they'll display the necessary consistency to replace the contributions of Payton, Fuller, and Duarte.
Eldridge Massington, who we said wasn't having a good spring as recently as Monday of last week, had a very, very good final week of spring ball, to the point where we think he might have finally developed a bit of a connection with Josh Rosen. Over the last week, he might have been the leading receiver on the team, and made several very tough catches. If Massington can turn that final week of spring into a very good fall camp, he would go a long way toward alleviating concerns about having a big-bodied, consistent receiver.
|Alex Van Dyke|
The other option at that spot from the guys we saw this spring is Alex Van Dyke. He has filled out considerably and looks like he could be a force catching jump balls and back shoulder throws -- if he can consistently catch the ball. Drops were an issue for him this spring, perhaps moreso than any of the other receivers, and he'll need to get significantly better if he's going to be a big receiver as consistent as Payton and Duarte.
Cordell Broadus obviously made his return this spring, and he looks like a guy who spent a year away from football. He looked a little better by the end of spring, and an offseason of working out and getting back into great football shape should do very good things for him. Jordan Lasley showed a few flashes of his ability, but he still hasn't developed the consistency to be counted on regularly. Mossi Johnson (injury) and Aaron Sharp (academic issue) were both out all spring, while freshman Demetric Felton sat out most of spring with an injury.
At tight end, UCLA really has two guys who can play in Nate Iese and Austin Roberts, and we saw quite a bit of both of them. Iese is clearly the more tight end-like of the two, with a more physical disposition and bigger frame. He had a slow start to the spring but started to come on toward the last two weeks, especially as a pass catcher. He's improved as a blocker, but he'll need to continue to improve as blocking defensive ends consistently is going to be one of his jobs.
Roberts is more of the flex guy between the team of them, and he actually looked pretty natural running routes at tight end, and is a clear mismatch against linebackers and safeties with his athleticism. As with Van Dyke, though, he'll need to work on his hands. He had quite a few drops this spring where it just looked like he lost concentration right at the end -- it's be something where the ball would have hit him in the chest if he hadn't put his hands up, but he was trying to turn upfield too quickly.
UCLA is probably going to have at least one tight end in every play, going by this spring, and we'd have to imagine the Bruins will use a fair amount of fullbacks, so it's going to be interesting to see the overall receiver rotation. The Bruins have a lot of bodies at receiver, and many of the talented ones look more like slots than anything, and that might be the receiver position that'll be reduced the most with the scheme changes. It'll be interesting to see how UCLA adjusts things this year to get those talented playmakers on the field.
Projected Fall Three-Deep
WR: Eldridge Massington, Alex Van Dyke, Jordan Lasley
Slot: Darren Andrews, Stephen Johnson
TE: Nate Iese, Austin Roberts, Jordan Wilson
WR: Ishmael Adams, Kenny Walker, Theo Howard