Line up UCLA sophomores Morrell Presley and Damien Thigpen next to each other, and you would never expect they played the same position.
Presley is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and uses his height to his advantage.
Thigpen is 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds and uses his height to his advantage.
Presley and Thigpen are battling for the F-back position – a modified H-back who roams all over the field, almost a hybrid running back/wide receiver – and they’ve taken vastly different paths.
Presley came to the Bruins rated the No. 1 tight end in the country, his lean frame leading to 44 catches, 783 yards and seven scores during his senior year for Carson High. He played extensively throughout his freshman season after enrolling early, but only managed six catches for 43 yards.
UCLA coaches encouraged him to work on his blocking during the offseason, particularly for his transition into his new role. On Tuesday, he laid a powerful block that led to a touchdown and hoots and hollers from his teammates.
“Last spring when I came in, I was so caught up in learning the passes and learning the formations, Presley said. “In my mind, I really wasn’t even thinking about the runs and the pass protection. My second time around, I’ve already been through the passes and the formations. Now I’m working on blocking and becoming more of a threat.”
Blocking is what got him noticed by UCLA in the first place, and it is again what will set him apart.
Case in point, a Twitter update from head coach Rick Neuheisel after Tuesday’s practice: “Big play highlight: 4th and 1, Morrell Presley earholes a blitzing LB to clear the way for a TD.”
“He’s a very willing guy,” offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. “The thing I liked about him when I watched him play high school football, he was a tight end at about 215, but he was very willing to go block people. He’s a tough guy, he wants to do well, he works at his trade. He just has to get used to it. One time he’s blocking, one time he’s catching – there’s a lot of stuff going on.”
Thigpen is in the same boat, and it’s being pulled in several different directions.
The Bruins have employed Thigpen all over the field after a freshman season in which he ran for 62 yards on 26 attempts and caught seven passes for 41 yards.
But the coaching staff is also quite pleased with Thigpen’s blocking – Chow said he would welcome contact with bigger, stronger defensive ends last season – as the diminutive back uses his slight frame for leverage.
“We’ve got a couple different ideas for Damien – we’re working him in some slot stuff,” UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel said. “A little receiver slash running back. We know he knows how to play running back so we’re dedicating this time to learning some more receiver skills.”
Integrating Presley and Thigpen into the Revolver offense has been a priority for the UCLA offense during spring ball. Now it’s all about developing the role and becoming complete players.
“The way we have it, defenses will never know if we’re running or passing,” Presley said. “Last year when I came in, every time I was in a game, I think the other team knew we were throwing the ball. They had no intentions of me staying in the trenches with the linemen and blocking. This time around, I have a little more weight on me, and I’m getting my hands dirty a little more.”