UCLA wants to drop all the talk about missed passes

UCLA football's Jimmie Dougherty instructs receivers during spring practice April 6.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Alex Van Dyke couldn’t quite pull in the deep pass from Devon Modster during a recent practice, falling to the artificial turf as the ball slipped through his hands. Van Dyke lingered on the ground for a moment, studying his outstretched fingers as if to ask, How could you do that to me?

It would be easy for doubt to catch on among UCLA’s receivers. They continually dropped passes last season and in the spring game, when seven catchable balls hit the ground. There was even a presumably unintended reminder of the issue last month at the Pac-12 Conference’s media days when caterers topped the blue UCLA-themed doughnuts with crumbled Butterfinger candies.

“It’s something we can’t tolerate,” sophomore receiver Theo Howard said of the drops.

The Bruins are addressing the concern in ways that transcend the usual lofting of extra passes from quarterbacks and hours spent working with a ball-launching machine. New receivers coach and passing game coordinator Jimmie Dougherty said he has charted every ball that has been caught from that machine since his arrival, providing a reminder of progress.


“They can look back at it and say, ‘I caught 5,000 balls in between February and the season’ and that’s a confidence builder,” Dougherty said. “You’ve done it over and over and over again and that’s how you get good at anything, right?”

The receivers have also found a tiny new ally in their pursuit of surer hands. They have plunged their hands into buckets of rice, turning their fingers and gripping the grains to build strength. They’ve put that newfound might to use catching weighted balls fired out of the ball-launching machine.

Technique is constantly stressed, with the receivers told to focus on the front half of the football and watch it until they are able to tuck it into their body.

UCLA faces a conundrum of sorts in approaching the dreaded “D” word because coaches want to emphasize the reduction of drops without producing excessive worry among players.

“There’s never a meeting where a ball’s dropped that it’s not addressed, there’s never a practice where a ball’s dropped that it’s not addressed,” Bruins coach Jim Mora said. “The problem is if you get into a practice setting and every time someone drops one you go, ‘Oop, here we go, just like before,’ then it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“You can have 500 opportunities to catch the ball in a practice, there’s going to be some drops. That doesn’t mean we want them. You say, ‘What’s the appropriate number?’ I’d say ‘Zero,’ you know what I mean? But I know there’s a realism to it as well.”

UCLA assistant Jimmie Dougherty instructs a receiver during spring practice on April 6.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Mora has said he considers it a drop if the ball hits the receiver’s hands and he can’t secure it. There were games last season when it seemed as if the number of drops nearly equaled the number of catches, but the season opener against Texas A&M on Sept. 3 at the Rose Bowl provides a chance for everyone to start anew.

The Bruins return their top two receivers from last season in Darren Andrews (55 catches in 2016) and Jordan Lasley (41), who have already been pushed by a host of others early in training camp. Howard, Van Dyke, Eldridge Massington, Christian Pabico and Audie Omotosho are among the other receivers who have also played as part of the first-team offense, with Dougherty saying he’s seeking a four- to six-man rotation for the opener against the Aggies.

One of the primary qualifications for playing time will be consistency, the ability to routinely run the correct route and make the catch or block the right player when a run is called. Drops can do more than ruin one play; Dougherty described them as “drive killers.”

“Instead of on first down, it can just be a simple hitch and you catch it and now it’s second and two,” Dougherty said, “well, if you drop it and it’s second and 10 then I think everybody feels that energy; it just kind of deflates the sideline.”

The receivers have heard the criticism that goes beyond the expected message board chatter. After a dropped pass early in the spring game at Drake Stadium, one fan yelled, “Just like last year!”


“That’s noise outside that we’re not worried about,” Andrews said when asked if the receivers were eager to show that last season’s struggles were behind them. “Our core is tight and we know exactly what we’re capable of and we believe in ourselves and that’s all that matters.”

Holding onto the ball would certainly force the doubters to drop the subject.

“It’s something we can work on and get better at through repetition over and over and over again to the point where it’s numbing,” Dougherty said. “Numbing repetition is what we talk about, so we’re just doing everything in our power to eliminate it.

“Drops are definitely something you want to eliminate. One is one too many.”

Twitter: @latbbolch