They’re baaaack! UCLA’s deep wide receiving corps returns fully intact
The Bruins have one quarterback who’s thrown a college pass. Their tight ends are as green as the Rose Bowl turf. None of their running backs has made it through a season as the primary ballcarrier. Their offensive line will rely on three new starters.
That leaves the wide receivers, an oasis of veteran savvy.
Redshirt senior Ethan Fernea is among the handful of Bruins who go back to the Jim Mora era. Kyle Philips, Chase Cota, Michael Ezeike and Delon Hurt are all in their third seasons playing under Kelly. Jaylen Erwin is a senior who spent two years at a community college before his arrival before last season.
Alabama’s Nick Saban, who was cleared to coach Saturday, has been almost as good of a leader when it comes to preaching safety measures regarding the novel coronavirus.
Every starter is back from 2019, when Philips emerged as quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s go-to receiver and Cota and Erwin also made significant contributions. The bevy of options means that defenses must get creative in their coverages.
“They can’t single one person out,” Philips said via Zoom, “and if they do, it’s just going to be a problem for them.”
Philips thrived while operating out of the slot last season, notching team highs in catches (60), receiving yards (681) and receiving touchdowns (five). Cota was another reliable option, making 25 catches for 350 yards and three touchdowns. Erwin was the deep threat before tailing off and making only four catches over the final three games. Fernea made one of the more memorable catches of the season when he hauled in a 45-yard touchdown against Colorado.
Ezeike, perhaps the most physically gifted of the bunch, did not make a catch but could be poised for a breakthrough season after spending much of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic enhancing his understanding of the playbook.
“He took it upon himself to mentally learn the offense, focus down,” Philips said of the teammate who is a matchup nightmare at 6 feet 5 and 228 pounds. “We can pluck him anywhere in the offense and he can just be the athlete he is and make big plays for us whether that’s catching balls, making blocks. I could see him being a very big part of the offense this year.”
Fans aren’t being allowed to attend USC and UCLA football games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but families of players want to be able to be inside the stadium.
The receivers worked out as much as they could with Thompson-Robinson over the extended off-season but were hampered by closed practice fields and social distancing restrictions. So they FaceTimed one another when they couldn’t be together, going over plays they would be able to implement as soon as they were reunited.
“We constantly texted and made sure that we were always working and preparing and looking over old film from last year,” said Erwin, who finished last season with 32 catches for 339 yards and two touchdowns. “Just trying to communicate on what I was trying to do on this play or what I was seeing versus what [Thompson-Robinson] was seeing.”
Their ranks have been bolstered by the arrival of true freshman Logan Loya, the former Bellflower St. John Bosco High standout who was one of the most highly touted members of Kelly’s latest recruiting class.
“He came in ready to play,” Philips said of Loya, a similarly slight receiver at 6 feet and 184 pounds. “He looks like a my-size kind of guy, but he really has some of the best hands I’ve seen. He’s able to jump over people and catch the ball and he’s also a smooth route runner.”
Could UCLA coach Chip Kelly’s old ties to Nike play a role in the Bruins potentially switching to the swoosh after its partnership with Under Armour?
As he scans the field this season, searching for an open receiver, Thompson-Robinson could have multiple attractive options.
“I think our receiver unit is going to blow through the roof,” Erwin said.
Those wondering what UCLA players are eating after the team spent $5.4 million on food in the 2019 fiscal year received a glimpse last week when tight ends coach Derek Sage tweeted out photos of packaged meals.
“Proud of the continued excellence of our fueling program, even in the face of the pandemic,” Sage wrote. “Bruins FUEL TO WIN!”
The menu included a dinner of Tex-Mex chicken tacos and grass-fed beef fajitas with pico de gallo, a lunch of grilled beef and baby peppers with creamy Parmesan risotto and a breakfast of whole banana, cereal, milk, yogurt and oatmeal.
“We might be the most well-fed team in the country,” said cornerback Obi Eboh, a graduate transfer from Stanford.
Nickelback Qwuantrezz Knight, a graduate transfer who has played at both Maryland and Kent State, said players received at least three full-course meals a day.
“We take care of our players here at a different level as far as nutrition,” Knight said. “I actually look forward to the meals every day, so I’m going to get a good breakfast in once I leave” the practice field.
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