Receivers & Traditional Tight Ends: Will UCLA’s Potential Finally Show Up?

Before the start of 2010 football season we thought UCLA was going to feature a "strong group of receivers" in Rick Neuheisel's third year in Westwood. When N posted his depth chart analysis of wide receivers in tight ends last July, the rotation looked stacked with speed (via Josh Smith, Randall Carroll, Ricky Marvray), agility (Nelson Rosario and Taylor Embree) and size via the TE position. Note I am not discussing the "F-Back" slot as B will address that position along with QBs and RBs in our last post in this series.

We thought we were in store for an exciting season featuring quick outs and slants leading to chunks and chunks of YACs, and bombs lighting up the Pac-10 secondary. Little did we know the kind of nightmare we were in store for during one of the most depressing UCLA football seasons in recent memories. Here are some numbers:

  • Our top two receivers - Embree and Rosario - combined for 61 total receptions during the 2010 football season. In comparison, J. Kearse, Pac-10's 6th best receiver caught 63 balls during the same season.
  • Rosario and Embree combined for 718 receiving yards. That number would have been barely good enough for the 8th spot in conference statistics in which Robert Woods - a Trojan freshman - placed 7th with 786 receiving yards in Lane Kiffin's offense.
  • Bruin receivers and tight ends combined for 8 TDs for the entire season. Jeff Maehl from Oregon (and Kearse from Washington) caught 12 scores alone during the same season

Got those numbers from Pac-10's official site and ESPN's UCLA page. That's just scratching the surface of what was an unwatchable receiving corps. It doesn't reflect how they looked so poorly coached and unprepared week after week.

It doesn't reflect how guys like Rosario and Embree brought up repeated nightmares caused by Brian Poli-Dixon's butterfingers. t doesn't reflect how the guys ran consistently ran horrible routes, showed no awareness of down markers, and often committed bone headed penalties and personal fouls on key situations.  None of them showed exceptional ability to block either. Collectively this group didn't show much heart or will to win big games.

They were not helped by the fact that the offensive coordinator stubbornly stuck with a one-legged QB for first half of the season, limiting the team's offensive options, and tying it up with predictable game plans.

Wait, that's not everything. We also had off field issues. We lost our incoming freshman WR Paul Richardson before the start of summer camp because he got enamored with fellow student's backpack. Neuheisel and UCLA did the right thing dismissing him for the Fall Quarter. Instead of trying to make his way back in via JC route, he decided to go to Colorado, where he had a better season than all of our receivers. He had more catches (34) and receiving yards (512) than any of our receivers.  He caught as many TDs (6) as our entire receiving corps (not including the TEs and RBs).

We lost Josh Smith and Marvray for part of the season to due to suspensions from violating team rules, which were never specified in public. That led to lot of speculation as to why. I will not go into all of that except to say that it was not smart and responsible. It hurt their development as players and it also exacerbated a sense of demoralization around the program.

Oh, there was also a bad injury as we lost Jerry Johnson who fractured his left ankle. Jerry had surgery for that injury and is expected back for the fall camp. This is where I will try to turn the page, attempt to put all the agonizing memories in our rear view mirror, and hope for a positive turn following the spring camp.

The depth chart for the receivers and TEs look something like this:

SE FL TE
Nelson Rosario (6-5, 218, Sr.) Taylor Embree (6-3, 205, Sr.) Cory Harkey (6-5, 273, Sr.)
Randall Carroll (5-10, 186, Jr.) Josh Smith (6-0, 209, Sr.**) Joseph Fauria (6-7, 258, Jr.**)
Shaquelle Evans (6-1, 199, So **) Ricky Marvray (5-11, 190, So.**) John Young (6-3, 265, Fr.**)
Jerry Rice, Jr. (5-11, 186, So.**)
Kevin McDermott (6-3, 250, Jr**)+
Jerry Johnson (6-4, 213, Jr.**)^+
Jordan Barrett (6-2, 257, So**)+


Andrew Yelich (6-3, 230, So**)+

** notes redshirt season
^ out from spring camp due to injury
+ Walk-ons

The biggest change with this unit is not reflected in the depth chart. These guys are going to be led by a brand new coach. Sort of.  As part of his total overhaul of the coaching staff, Neuheisel made a much needed change by letting his former UCLA colleague -Reggie Moore - go. Moore was a nice guy but for number of reasons (many of which I pointed out above the fold) it was time for him to move on. The rotations for horrific all year. Our guys looks poorly prepared without any sense of football IQ and fundamentals.

Neuheisel did not bring in a coach to specifically lead the WRs. But it is widely assumed that the new OC, Mike Johnson will take a lead role in trying to shape up this unit. He is listed as Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers coach in the official site.  Here are the WR specific highlights from his resume:

Prior to joining the 49ers, Johnson served as the wide receivers coach in Baltimore from 2006 to 2007 (Neuheisel was quarterbacks coach during those two years). With the Ravens, he helped 12-year veteran receiver Derrick Mason record his sixth 1,000-yard season in 2007. Mason tallied 1,087 yards on 103 receptions with five touchdowns, leading the team in all receiving categories. A year prior, WR Mark Clayton developed into the Ravens top deep threat and playmaker, posting three touchdowns of 62-or-more yards.

***

In 2002, Johnson guided a young Falcons wide receiver corps that included WR Brian Finneran, who had the best year of his career, recording 838 yards on 56 receptions and six touchdowns.

***

Johnson coached three seasons at Oregon State, tutoring the quarterbacks in 1999 for Dennis Erickson after serving as the Beavers wide receivers coach for Mike Riley in 1997 and 1998. The Beavers' record improved in each of his three seasons. In 1999, OSU passed for 3,053 yards, the fifth-highest total in school history.

That all sounds good ... on a web page. I would like to get really excited about all of that but I have to remind myself how "web bios" can make anyone look good on team's official website. I don't need to mention names as examples here. You can think of examples from last 10 years of UCLA athletics history of our two major revenue programs.  I will just hope that Johnson can effectively drill our guys and develop a wide receivers crew, who pays attention to details and fundamentals.

Besides Johnson, Jim Mastro will help Johnson (and Neuheisel) with developing the TEs. Mastro came over from Chris Ault's Nevada program, well versed in the intricacies of much discussed "pistol" offense. You can read his full bio here. From the off-season reports, it appears that pistol will still be a part of our offensive scheme but it will not be the primary feature the coaches tried to make it out to be in last year's mess. The main issue Mastro will face with our TEs is to make sure these guys can offer multi dimensional skill sets as opposed to being good in one specific aspects (i.e. Harkey could only block and Fauria could only catch).

Let's look at the info from the official site going over WRs and traditional TEs. First the WRs. The official does a good job of putting a good face on the mediocre on field numbers:

True senior Taylor Embree (6-3, 205) has enjoyed three straight highly-productive seasons. He made 11 starts last season and led the team with 32 catches for 409 yards. As a sophomore, he led the team with 45 catches, after ranking second, with 40 receptions, as a freshman. His career total of 117 receptions ranks No. 11 on the all-time school list. Embree ranks 14th on the all-time school receiving yards list (1,548).

True senior Nelson Rosario (6-5, 218), who started eight of the nine games in which he appeared, once again finished the season on a high note. He finished second on the team with 29 receptions and 309 receiving yards. Rosario made 15 catches for 172 yards in the last three contests of the season.

Two speed receivers will be looking to expand their roles on the team. True junior Randall Carroll (5-10, 186) appeared in all 12 games and made one start in 2010. He hauled in 15 passes for 242 yards on the season (16.1 avg.), including a pair of scoring plays --- 68-yards against Arizona and 46-yards at Arizona State.

Redshirt sophomore Ricky Marvray (5-11, 190) saw action in 11 games with four starts last season. He ranked third on the team with 20 catches last season for 188 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His first career reception went for a 29-yard touchdown late in the game at Kansas State. Marvray made a one-yard scoring grab in the win at Texas.

Two players with good size and speed also figure to compete for spots in the receiver rotation. Redshirt junior Jerry Johnson (6-4, 213) came off the bench in eight games in 2010, and made five catches for 57 yards. Johnson fractured his left ankle and missed the last four games of the season. He will not participate in Spring Practice due to surgery on the ankle.

Redshirt senior Josh Smith (6-0, 209) appeared in 10 games off the bench a year ago as a receiver and return man. He caught 11 balls for 127 yards and one touchdown (49-yards v. Arizona) in his first season with the Bruins after transferring from Colorado. Smith ranked eighth in the Pac-10 with a 22.59 kickoff return average on his 32 returns and 13th in all-purpose yards (91.90).

Redshirt sophomore Shaquelle Evans (6-1, 199) should also insert himself into the mix this season. A transfer from Notre Dame who made three receptions for the Irish as a true freshman in 2009, Evans had shoulder surgery last Fall after joining the program and will participate only in non-contact drills during Spring Practice.

Redshirt sophomore walk-on Jerry Rice, Jr. (5-11, 186) will also look to add depth at wide receiver.

The WR rotation of last couple of years would make Ben Howland's infatuation with Nikola Dragovic or him not being able to hold Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson accountable, will look tame. It made no sense how the coaches completely failed to integrate the speed of Randall Carroll or the athleticism of Ricky Marvray into our offense last year, and repeatedly stuck with the ineffective starting lineup of Embree and Rosario. Rosario certainly has the potential - on paper - to be the next JJ Stokes. But more often he has looked like Brian Poli Dixon, a talented, tall receiver without any heart or gumption. Coaches failed to light a fire under him because his starting job was never in jeopardy.

Same with Embree. He is perhaps the most reliable receiver during practice but he has never really come up big on Saturdays or in big games. Embree has been the poster child of a receiving crew, which has consistently failed to get any separation from the defensive backs, giving our QBs with good down field options.

We saw a little flashes of down field thread with Randall Carroll during second half of the season, when apparently Neuheisel took a little "hands on" approach with the offense. But it wasn't enough. He along with Marvray repeatedly hurt the team with bad penalties and lack of discipline. Hopefully the new coaching staff will be able to bring some much discipline, helping this kids mature both on and off the field, and finally help them realize their potential on the field.

Jerry Johnson and Shaquille Evans are interesting wildcards. We are not going to know about Johnson until Fall camp but it will be interesting to hear what folks have to say about Evans in this spring camp. If he can step up and raise the competitive level of play, it could help.

As for Josh Smith, he is in the same boat as Carroll and Marvray. He has the speed and the ability. It is a matter of him being well integrated into our offensive scheme, and also not hurting the team with bonehead mistakes. Hopefully he can also stay healthy as last season was marred with injuries in the early going.

Here is what the official site has on our traditional TEs (minus the designated "F-Backs"):

At tight end, true senior Cory Harkey (6-5, 273) is a big, athletic player who started all 12 games in 2010. He can be a force at the point of attack and caught 14 balls for 140 yards.

Redshirt junior Joseph Fauria (6-7, 258) joined the Bruins in the Fall of 2009 after transferring from Notre Dame, where he played in three games as a freshman in 2008. He made three catches on the season for 21 yards and two accounted for touchdowns.

Redshirt junior walkon Kevin McDermott (6-3, 250) figures to add depth at this position. He has also served as the back-up long snapper and will compete for that job. Two other walkons, redshirt sophomore Andrew Yelich (6-3, 230) and redshirt sophomore Jordan Barrett (6-2, 257), a transfer from UNLV who sat out last season, will also compete for reps during the Spring.

Redshirt freshman John Young (6-4, 265), from Loyola HS, will also look to get in the mix after sitting out last season due to injury. Redshirt junior walkon Austin Hill (6-5, 252) will also look to catch the coaches' attention this Spring.

No idea what Kevin McDermott and Andrew Yellich can offer. I guess Jordan Barett was moved from the LB position. He had transferred in as a LB. We will see what John Young can offer. I have never seen him play. From what I have read about him, he comes across as a blocking specialist. May be he could get moved to the OL in a year or two if he puts on another 20-30 pounds?

The spotlight here is going to be Harkey and Fauria. Both of them were huge busts this past season. Harkey certainly has the size. He caught the winning TD against Stanford two years ago. Since then he hasn't had a lot of great moments.  Every game he seemed to come up with drive killing dropsies. He is a decent blocker, which allowed him to be on the field a lot with our one dimensional offense of this past season. He has put on some weight this offseason, jumping from 259 last Fall to 273.

Fauria was supposed to be a good receiver. He didn't see much action because he was hurt a lot with nagging injuries. When he was on the field, he looked lost when it came to blocking and did not light the world on fire with his receiving abilities either. He was a huge disappointment (just like rest of our offense).

Mastro will have his hands full with these guys (and the "F-Backs").  The potential is clearly there.  Harkey had offers from number of Pac-10 programs including Oregon. We all know Fauria came over from Notre Dame. It is a question of whether Neuheisel and his staff will finally turn their potential into results?

We hope all of you who are going to be attending practices will keep us plugged in with the details coming from the camp that can help answer this question. Whether it is sharing pictures or notes, help us keep track of the development of these units and rest of the team through fanposts and fanshots next couple of weeks.

I guess the question of potential is applicable to our entire offense (and the program) during this upcoming season. Spring camp will probably not give us all the answers but maybe we will see some helpful hints? As I said, hope you can help us keeping track of it all.

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