Shaq Evans should be the 'go-to' receiver next year
With tight end Joseph Fauria and running back Johnathan Franklin headed to the NFL, the UCLA Bruins will have to replace their two most productive offensive talents in 2013.
Leading candidates? Well, leading receiver Shaq Evans will return, as will as a stable of young receivers led by Devin Lucien, Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton.
As for the running backs, Franklin's impact won't be easy—nor necessarily feasible—to replace. A running back by committee seems like the logical modus operandi for Jim Mora and the Bruins. With that in mind, any combination of Damien Thigpen, Jordon James and Paul Perkins could fit the bill.
This piece will exclude possible incoming recruits. In truth, a projection of how the 2013 commitments will figure into things is all conjecture at this point. Signing day is on Feb. 6, and it's not yet clear as to whom UCLA will sign when it's all said and done.
Here are the five biggest weapons that quarterback Brett Hundley will have to have at his disposal in 2013.
Steven Manfro had a solid freshman campaign
There's a litany of players on the roster that have been and could be contributors next season. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense requires a fast tempo. It also functions frequently with multiple receiver sets. There will be constant substituting and a utilization of many offensive skill players.
Hybrid running back/wide receiver Steven Manfro had a solid start to last season. The versatile athlete was employed as a slot receiver and out of the backfield on occasion.
Manfro was also featured prominently in the return game. However, he muffed three punts in consecutive games and saw his role lessen as a result. Still, the soon-to-be redshirt sophomore is a young player that has the ability to play multiple positions.
Darius Bell could assume the starting role at the "Y" position. A former quarterback, Bell has great hands. While not blessed with tremendous speed or size, he's shown a knack to get open and exploit little pockets of space out on the field.
Running back Jordon James will be in a battle for the running back position. This past season, James often looked far too tentative and didn't exactly hit the hole with any force. He does have great agility and lateral movement, but he needs to run more north and south as opposed to east and west. When he does, he'll be much more effective.
One player with the potential to break out and be a real weapon is Kenneth Walker. The Richmond, Calif., native is one of the fastest players on football team. He can play as a running back, but he has been mostly employed as a wide receiver during his time at UCLA.
Once he improves his vision and gets more polished as a receiver, the sky is truly the limit. His physical tools are outstanding, and he can be the game-breaker that the Bruins have lacked in recent years.
Of the 2013 commitments, the two that could theoretically make an impact early from a receiver's standpoint are Eldridge Massington and Thomas Duarte. It would not be a shock to see both play—and potentially start next season.
Let's face it, it will be nearly impossible to replicate the amount of success that Franklin had last season. He rushed for 1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns on the year. He was also regarded as the inspirational leader of the football team and someone that everyone immensely respected.
One guy that could potentially make some noise next season from Franklin's old spot is Paul Perkins.
The freshman from Queen Creek, Ariz., redshirted this past season. The Bruins were afforded this luxury due to overall depth at the position, but Perkins was more than capable of playing if forced into duty.
He demonstrated a physical nature during fall camp and throughout the year on scout team. Perkins also ran with great pad level—making it tough to be tackled. Of the running backs currently on the roster, neither James nor Damien Thigpen look like "every-down" backs.
Perkins, on the other hand, probably fits that bill more so than anyone else on the squad. He'll get a chance to impress, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see him start.
It also wouldn't be a surprise to see class of 2013 pledge Craig Lee get some time at the position. He will enter UCLA as perhaps the most innately talented member of the running backs corps.
However, there's no guarantee that a true freshman can be counted on to carry a considerable role. With that in mind, it's too early to pencil Lee in as a concrete option.
Payton making a tough grab versus Wazzu
Jordan Payton had a decent freshman campaign—in which he had 18 catches for 202 yards and one touchdown. He'll look to build upon it and have an even more successful sophomore season.
At 6'2", he's one of the bigger receivers on the roster. With his size, he did a nice job at using his body to shield off defenders and make the tough grab. Channelling his reputation from high school, he was a physical player during his limited time out on the field.
Payton is also good at creating separation down the field via his technical route running. He's not super fast, but he's very intelligent and crafty.
With his size, he surely will be targeted on underneath and intermediate routes. He won't stretch the field often with a lack of overall speed. Despite that, he's a sure-handed, dependable candidate for Hundley and the pass offense.
WR Devin Fuller
Devin Fuller came to UCLA with the idea of playing quarterback. However, it's not known as to whether he envisioned becoming the team's starting slot receiver by season's end.
He did just that, and he could have a permanent home as a receiver.
Fuller won't unseat Hundley as the starting quarterback anytime soon. Hundley is also only a redshirt freshman, so it could be sometime until Fuller would actually see minutes at the position.
Combine that with the fact that Fuller is a spectacular overall athlete, and it precipitated a move to receiver. This was also done in large part because the Bruins wanted to get their best athletes out on the field.
Quicker than fast, Fuller really impressed the staff—despite his lack of experience at the position. On the year, he had 20 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Comfortability at the position will surely come with more experience.
As he continues to get more familiar with the nuances of the position, he'll become that much more effective. He could still theoretically play at the quarterback position, but it seems as if he'll stay at receiver for the time being.
Thigpen eluding a Nebraska defender
Some might be surprised to see Damien Thigpen on this list.
The Gainesville, Va., native suffered a torn ACL against Southern Cal in November. There's no timetable for when Thigpen will be back to full health.
Regardless, he'll enter his senior year as both the most experienced and productive running back on the roster. In 2012, Thigpen rushed 50 times for 262 yards and two touchdowns, while also catching 18 balls for 211 yards and two touchdowns.
Thigpen was a nightmare for opposing defenses. The Bruins liked to sprinkle Thigpen in the run game, usually on draws and delayed handoffs. His top-end speed ranks him among the best on the team, and his quickness is unrivaled.
Much of Thigpen's value came in the pass game—primarily out of the backfield. He was a great weapon on swing plays out to the perimeter, which catered to his strengths as a player. Thigpen was a big part of the return game, and he was great on special teams coverage.
There's no telling if Thigpen will be the same player post-rehab, but his overall value on the team is high. Should he return to even 90 percent of what he once was, he'll still be one of the more dangerous weapons that Hundley has to work with on the team.
Lucien making a highlight-reel grab against Rice in the opener
The Crespi High School product has all the tools to be a big time receiver one day: route-running ability, quickness off the snap, leaping ability and a little bit of swag to boot.
He provided impressive highlight-reel plays throughout the year in his limited time on the field. Based on the highlight, it's quite evident that Lucien's got extremely strong hands and superlative body control.
When healthy, he gives UCLA a true deep threat that's been lacking for years. Look for him to start next season as a redshirt sophomore and truly make his mark as a member of this team.
Evans making a grab against Southern Cal
Shaquelle "Shaq" Evans was Mr. Consistency last season for the Bruins.
He led the team in receptions (60) and receiving yards (877). More often than not, Evans was often relied upon to make a play during crucial points in any said game.
Evans isn't a physical specimen, and he doesn't have great speed. Despite that, the Notre Dame transfer just makes plays. He's solid in every facet—especially in blocking downfield for his fellow receivers.
As a senior next season, he will be the "go-to" guy for Hundley and the Bruins.