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There’s always a catch with UCLA’s Thomas Duarte

UCLA receiver Thomas Duarte catches a touchdown pass in the first quarter of the Bruins' game against California on Oct. 22.

UCLA receiver Thomas Duarte catches a touchdown pass in the first quarter of the Bruins’ game against California on Oct. 22.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Thomas Duarte, a sure-handed UCLA receiver, learned to catch at a young age.

No one just handed over anything his family’s home. It was thrown. Television remotes, magazines, fruit, all got tossed around.

“We were moving one time and I had a box of stuff come at me,” Duarte said. “That was kind of weird.”

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Timothy Duarte, his father, was a high school running back and linebacker. Duarte’s uncles, Tom and Jim, were high school quarterbacks.

“You never just handed someone something,” Thomas Duarte said. “It was thrown and caught.”

Duarte, a junior, is 6 feet 2, 225 pounds, making him a tough physical matchup for defensive backs. He also has deceptive speed.

His sure hands and precision route running make him a favorite target for Josh Rosen, UCLA’s freshman quarterback.

Duarte has 46 receptions for 666 yards and a team-best eight touchdowns.

“This is what I always thought he would be, the prototype for that flex tight end,” said Noel Mazzone, UCLA’s offensive coordinator. “That’s what I saw when we signed him.”

Mazzone said the last player he coached to fit that mold was Gerell Robinson at Arizona State. Robinson spent the last four seasons in the NFL.

“Thomas has the same body type and the same ability to catch balls,” Mazzone said.

Mazzone can thank Duarte’s kin for those skills.

Playing football was a given in the Duarte family. His father and two uncles played at Fullerton Troy High. His grandfather also played football.

Duarte’s career started in a flag football league when he was 4, but his training began almost from birth.

“I always remember catching balls,” Duarte said. “My dad and uncles would always play catch with me. There was something about running and catching balls that fascinated me.”

Duarte also delved into the science of running routes, parlaying that into 58 receptions for 1,025 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Santa Ana Mater Dei High.

“He is tremendous at setting guys up in man [coverage] and finding the openings in a zone,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “He’s smooth.”

“Smooth” is Duarte’s nickname at UCLA.

“Everything is this smooth operation with him,” receiver Jordan Payton said. “He’s not pushing himself by being fanatical. He just gets in and out calmly. His emotions are balanced.”

Payton saw that when he hosted Duarte on his official recruiting visit.

“I can’t remember any stories about him because he never really said much,” Payton said. “I kept asking him, ‘You all right? You good?’ because he didn’t talk.”

Duarte still doesn’t talk much. He just snags passes.

His numbers were low the first two seasons as he battled recurring hamstring issues. Those problems have not surfaced this season, and Duarte has topped 100 receiving yards three times in the last five games.

Rosen caught on to Duarte’s skills early.

“A quarterback wants a big guy over the middle that is going to be where he is supposed to be,” Mora said. “That’s what Thomas does.”

Duarte’s most memorable catch of the season might have come against Arizona in UCLA’s fourth game. Running full tilt, he reached for a zip-line pass from Rosen with his right hand and tipped it to himself. He then bounced off one defender and bulled over two more for a 35-yard touchdown.

“He has the two qualities you need as a receiver,” Mazzone said. “He gets open and he catches everything.”

In the Duarte household, you had to.

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes


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