UCLA's offense was a completely broken thing last year. Not only was it poorly coached, but the quarterback got hurt, the running backs underperformed, the offensive line was the worst it's been under Jim Mora and, yes, the wide receivers seemed to lose the ability to catch footballs. Even when Josh Rosen was healthy at the beginning of the year and the offense still looks semi-OK, receivers were already dropping balls at a much higher rate than they've done in the past, and that led to far too many stalled drives. It wasn't just one guy, or a couple of guys either; drops were an issue across the board last year, as it seemed there was just a collective inability to catch the ball cleanly and consistently.
Of course, there were some bright spots. Jordan Lasley emerged over the course of the season as a legitimate big play threat at outside receiver. Darren Andrews continued his very solid play from a year ago. Theo Howard, who didn't play much, still flashed quite a bit of talent in those moments where he saw the field. But, as we saw over the years with Eric Yarber as the wide receivers coach, it often seemed as if the receiver rotations took experience, rather than talent, far more into account, so we didn't see as much as we would have liked of Lasley at the beginning of the year, or Howard at any point during the year.
The tight ends performed better, and probably better than we had any right to expect. Nate Iese seemed to put it together a bit over the last six games of the year, but he was also aided by key contributions from Caleb Wilson especially over the course of the back half of the season. It wasn't a great blocking unit, but no one was really expecting it to be in year one of the position.
Overall, there are plenty of bodies in both the tight end and receivers depth chart, but this spring will be about finding two or three guys to be the go-to targets this season.
A Look at Spring
As we mentioned above, Lasley became basically UCLA's best big play threat over the course of the season. Only playing in 11 games in a bad offense, he still managed to rack up 41 catches for 620 yards and five touchdowns. We had long heard about focus and attitude being issues for Lasley in practice (and, in fairness, saw it at times with our own eyes), but none of that really seemed to be an issue on the field. He has plenty of talent, with a good frame, very good speed, and good hands, so if we were handicapping the race to be the go-to guy this year, Lasley might be at the top of our odds chart.
Andrews, who was the leading returning receiver on the team last year, unsurprisingly led the team in receiving. He played both outside and inside last year at receiver, and it's going to be interesting to see where he fits into Jedd Fisch's new scheme. If three receivers are typically on the field at once, we could see Andrews settling into a slot role, but if it's more typically two receivers with either two tight ends and a back or one tight end and two backs, he may be back outside.
One significant bit of news, even since we wrote the quarterback story: we've heard that Dymond Lee will make the long-awaited move to wide receiver this spring. Having watched him at receiver quite a bit in high school, this seems like a very good move. Lee has excellent body control, hands, and leaping ability, and from what we've gathered, he has improved his speed and quickness since being in the program. Even if he's just the guy we saw in high school, he can absolutely help UCLA much more at receiver than he likely would have at quarterback.
Eldridge Massington is back for his senior season after not playing in the final three games of the year last year. He was one of the guys who seemed to struggle more with drops last year, but, to his credit, he did bounce back a bit from what was a really tough sophomore year. He finished with 20 catches for 285 yards, which basically doubled his production from a year before. He has the frame to be a solid possession receiver, but he just hasn't put it all together yet at UCLA.
Howard has looked good this offseason, but, from what we've heard, he hasn't gotten significantly bigger. Still, watching him on the field last year, it didn't look like size or strength were necessarily huge issues for him. Having a year in the program now and a season of (limited) reps under his belt, it'll be fun to see him this spring and whether he's ready to make a big impact. Mossi Johnson, who is now a senior, is committing to receiver full time and there's a feeling within the program that he could emerge as the unit's leader, since he's such a fiery personality. He's also fully healthy for the first time in a while.
UCLA is still waiting for the light to turn on for guys like Alex Van Dyke and Stephen Johnson. Van Dyke is now a senior, but he was another one of the guys who seemed particularly affected by drops last year. Johnson saw no game action last year after looking like he'd have a decent-sized role after contributing as a freshman. UCLA did toy with playing him at corner last spring, but he didn't look fully comfortable there.
From the redshirting freshmen category: we continue to hear great things about Adewale Omotosho, and there's an expectation that he'll be a big contributor before too much time passes. We've also heard nice things about Damian Alloway, who could fit in as a slot depending on how significant of a role the slot plays in Fisch's offense. Demetric Felton, as we mentioned before, could move to running back at some point, but as far as we know, he's sticking at receiver for now. He's also fully healthy now, and is reportedly one of the fastest guys on the team.
One of the big curiosities of spring is whether freshman defensive back Darnay Holmes will also see a little time at wide receiver. During his high school career, there were times we believed he might project as a better college receiver, but it could be overwhelming for him in spring as an early enrollee to not only try to assimilate in the secondary but as a receiver, too.
The tight end position loses Iese, but Caleb Wilson impressed a lot of people last year and has built on that with a solid offseason, from everything we've gathered. He has the frame to grow into a real two-way threat at tight end in terms of both blocking and receiving. Austin Roberts had a nice year as sort of a flex tight end last season, and we haven't yet heard what his role will be in Fisch's offense (whether he'll be a pure tight end, or move to receiver). Jordan Wilson has also reportedly looked good in the offseason, with the frame and athleticism to be a playmaker. In addition to those guys, freshman Jimmy Jaggers is already on campus, and this will be our first opportunity to take a look at how he stacks up against his fellow tight ends.
Then there's also Devin Asiasi. It's going to be very interesting to see what he can bring to the table at tight end in his first spring in the program. We've speculated since high school that he might ultimately make more sense as either a defensive lineman or offensive lineman, since his body is definitely trending toward becoming bigger. We've heard there's still a slim chance he could become eligible this season, depending on how his appeal turns out.
As a general thing, UCLA has, in theory, enough talent at both receiver and tight end for those positions to not be complete liabilities. Looking at the receiver corps especially, there seems to be a lot of underutilized speed and athleticism in the depth chart, from guys like Lasley, who should have played more to this point in his career, to guys like Howard, both Johnsons, Alloway, and Felton who could flash some very good speed. Coupled with that, having Lee in the receiving corps now and adding a talent like Omotosho to the playing time mix should make it a much more competitive group than a year ago. A coaching change can only help this situation, and we'll get to see what kind of style Jimmie Dougherty brings to the table starting next week.
Projected Spring Two-Deep
WR: Lasley, Lee
Slot: Andrews, M. Johnson
TE: C. Wilson, Roberts
WR: Howard, Omotosho