UCLA season preview: At receiver, depth is more important than stars

UCLA season preview: At receiver, depth is more important than stars
UCLA receiver Thomas Duarte makes a catch against California defensive back Damariay Drew during a game at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 12, 2013. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

As UCLA training camp wound down this week, many of the questions that coaches and players fielded were about quarterback Brett Hundley's decision-making in the pocket.

Hundley led the team in rushing last season and has the ability to scramble better than most, which worked for UCLA in 2013. But if the goal this year is to keep him healthy and rested, that scenario might not work as well.

Some of that is on Hundley and his willingness to stay in the pocket, but his wide receivers also have some responsibility in that regard. It's going to be a lot easier for Hundley to get rid of the ball if he has people to throw it to.

The Bruins saw their leading pass catcher from last year, Shaquelle Evans, go to the New York Jets in the fourth round of the NFL draft, but the wideout only had 47 catches last year. For context, Fresno State alone had three receivers catch more than 75 passes last year.

It's not about replacing Evans as much as it is the continued development of the current group of receivers. UCLA has a spread-it-out-type of offensive system that probably won't allow for a receiver to catch more than 100 balls. Depth is more important than star power.

Along with redshirt sophomore Paul Perkins and redshirt freshman Eldridge Massington, juniors Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton are to carry a lot of the load. UCLA's resident deep threat, Devin Lucien, also is returning. The redshirt junior averaged almost 18 yards a reception last season, and seems to have developed a rapport with Hundley throughout camp.

An interesting breakout candidate is sophomore Thomas Duarte. Last year, the tight end/inside receiver hybrid set the UCLA freshman record for touchdown catches in a season, with three. Last week, he said he's near 100% healthy after a hamstring injury sidelined him for most of training camp, and that he feels a lot better about his sophomore season than he did about his rookie campaign.

"You just didn't want to make a mistake," Duarte said. "Now, I've matured more, and I see that if you make a mistake, you can just play the next play and fix it in the film room."

There is considerably less uncertainty on the special-teams front. Long Beach Community College transfer Matt Mengel will likely start at punter in place of Sean Covington, who left the program for unknown reasons last month. Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn is looking to improve on a season in which he made just 14 of his 21 field-goal attempts, and it looks like junior defensive back Ishmael Adams and redshirt junior running back Steven Manfro are going to continue returning kickoffs, with Adams set for punt return duties.

This is the fifth of five season previews on UCLA Now. Previous previews included the offensive backs, secondary, offensive line and defensive front seven. UCLA begins its season on Saturday at 9 a.m. at Virginia.

For more Bruin observations, follow Everett Cook on Twitter: @everetcook