Freshman Thomas Duarte a potential spark to Y-receiver corps


This was last year’s red-zone motto for UCLA: “Put it on the top shelf where the kids can’t get it.”

Easy to do when your target is 6-foot-7. Joseph Fauria led the Bruins with 12 touchdown catches, the most for any tight end in the country. When Brett Hundley needed a safety valve as a first-year starter, he most often looked to the Mackey Award semifinalist.

Entering head coach Jim Mora’s second season, UCLA’s tight ends – better termed as Y-receivers in the Bruins’ fast-paced offense – don’t stick out nearly as much. Seniors Darius Bell and Grayson Mazzone are 5-foot-11 and 5-foot-8, respectively. Nate Iese and Jordan Barrett both measure at least 6-foot-2, but will likely be used more as blockers.

The difference maker could be true freshman Thomas Duarte, a prized 6-foot-3 recruit out of Mater Dei High. Named the Orange County Register’s Player of the Year as well as to the MaxPreps all-state team, his No. 18 jersey was retired in March alongside former USC quarterback Matt Barkley’s. UCLA coaches and teammates already point out Duarte’s wide passing radius and smooth game.

“His ceiling is so high,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “He’s a natural ball catcher, a natural route runner. Every day, it’s like ‘This guy’s ready.’ He’s going to play. There’s no doubt about it.”

Though UCLA hopes Duarte can eventually match Fauria’s production, he doesn’t quite fit in the same mold. Before he arrived on campus, Duarte said the Bruin he watched most was Bell – a heady pass-catcher who described himself as “not even in the top eight” of UCLA receivers in pure talent.

“The way he runs his routes, the way he gets open, the way he’s patient – you don’t get that in a lot of receivers,” Duarte said. “He makes up for his not being as big as Joe was.”

The praise goes both ways.

“He does things that freshmen don’t do,” Bell said of Duarte. “The little things, but it’s the little things that count. Everyone’s big, everyone’s fast, everyone’s athletic. It’s the little nuances of the position.”

Bell missed most of last season, the former quarterback’s first at receiver, and finished with just seven catches for 143 yards. A technician who likes to model himself after Broncos receiver Wes Welker, he’s penciled in as the starter but is easing back into fall camp (broken hand).

He participated Saturday in a red jersey, but the Bruins are better built this year to weather the loss of any one receiver — even if the top-end talent isn’t as thrilling. While Fauria carried the scoring load in 2012, Mazzone plans this year to swap his Y-receivers in more often. Near the goal line, UCLA may even utilize the 6-foot-4 frames of defensive end Cassius Marsh or linebacker Anthony Barr.

For now, there isn’t a primary option.

If Duarte blossoms, he could be — either this season or next.

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