It was an open audition at UCLA’s practice Tuesday. Anyone with the proper skill set was getting a look as punt returner.
Catching the ball was Act 1, Scene 1.
The Bruins have had problems with punt returns in their last three games. Steven Manfro muffed a punt in each game, and all three led to opponents’ touchdowns.
“He has just had a couple games where it hasn’t gone well,” Coach Jim Mora said. “I feel for his psyche and for our team it’s best to give him a little break.”
That led to a casting call that included Shaquelle Evans, Randall Goforth, Andrew Abbott, Tevin McDonald and Devin Fuller.
“We had a lot of guys back there,” Mora said.
Damien Thigpen, Abbott and Fuller have handled punts this season. Fuller, a freshman, replaced Manfro against Arizona State on Saturday. He fielded one punt and dropped the ball but recovered the fumble.
Manfro, a redshirt freshman, will continue to work on returning punts.
“It hurts him,” Mora said. “He takes it seriously. He works his tail off at it. I have no doubt that at some point in his career he will come back and be a great punt returner for us.”
Manfro is averaging 8.8 yards in 15 punt returns, with his longest 27 yards. His last two drops have been high-profile gaffes.
Against Utah, Manfro tried to field a punt that was over his head inside the five-yard line. The ball glanced off his hands and was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
He made a similar mistake against Arizona State on Saturday. The Sun Devils recovered the ball on the 13-yard line and scored two plays later.
“It has basically been decision making, going for punts I should let go,” Manfro said.
The break from returning punts, he said, “will get it off my mind while I keep working on it in practice.”
Manfro bounced back from the mistake against Arizona State with three receptions for 33 yards. The biggest was a 14-yard reception to start UCLA’s game-winning field-goal drive. Manfro snagged the pass on the sideline and got out of bounds.
“That definitely felt good,” Manfro said. “It helped build momentum and helped ease the frustration from earlier.”
You make the call
The ongoing saga of the coin toss …
On Saturday, UCLA won the toss and believed it had deferred taking possession to the second half. Whatever was said, referees interpreted it to mean UCLA chose to kick off to start the game, giving Arizona State the choice of whether to kick or receive to start the second half.
On Monday, the Pac-12 said that a conference official met with UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero at halftime and explained that the referees had acted properly. The official also brought the same message to Mora after the game, according to a conference spokesman.
On Tuesday, Mora had a different version of events. He said a conference official called, “Sunday morning at 8 a.m., apologizing for the confusion of the coin toss. It was nice to hear them accept responsibility for it.”
Asked whether the conference admitted the referees were wrong, Mora said, “That’s what they told me.”
On Tuesday afternoon a Pac-12 official said there was no error by the referee and no apologies had been issued.
Whom to believe?
Toss a coin?
Receiver Darius Bell said he expected to be back in the lineup against Arizona on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. He missed the last two games while recovering from a broken rib and separated shoulder, both suffered against California on Oct. 6.
Bell has seven receptions and is averaging 20.4 yards per catch. He was in pads Tuesday for the first time in three weeks but was not allowed to participate in contact drills.
“I went out there and ran some routes,” Bell said. “I’m ready to go.”