For a UCLA offense that wants to be bigger, faster and stronger than it was a year ago, Thomas Duarte might just embody all three this spring.
Already one of UCLA’s biggest targets on offense, the sophomore wide receiver added weight in the offseason and currently measures in at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds. The weight gain has yet slowed him down as he has shined in spring practice thus far, in part thanks to a better understanding of the game.
“(I feel) a lot faster, a lot bigger, a lot stronger, to be honest, I just feel like a different player,” Duarte said. “Mentally, my game has stepped up due to the coaches, spending time in their offices, watching film, just elevating my mental game so that my physical game can match that.”
Duarte added that he spent time over the winter working on recognizing coverages and refining his route running in an effort to bring a “quickness” to his game to pair with his size.
The improvement has been abundantly clear in the first two weeks of April as Duarte has routinely gotten separation from defensive backs and become one of the Bruins’ most versatile weapons.
“TD is a monster,” said redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley. “The way he can run, he is sort of deceptively fast. The way he can get away from a defensive back and outjump them – he’s tall but he’s very lengthy with his arms and where you can throw it and where he can go get it at.”
While Duarte’s growth – both mental and physical – has certainly caught the attention of coaches, players and pundits alike, it is his growing rapport with Hundley that may be paying the biggest dividends, as he has already become one of the signal caller’s favorite targets.
“No matter how good they are or how good they think they are, to me, it’s the me-to-you factor that Brett (Hundley) has with them,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “I could love the hell out of them, but if Brett doesn’t like him, then he ain’t gonna throw him the football. … My point is, I’m really starting to see the me-to-you factor with him.”
An increased comfort level with the offense, a better understanding of the game and a physical improvement has Duarte and company expecting big things out of the young receiver. After hauling in 16 receptions for 214 yards and three scores a year ago, he now seems primed to build on those numbers.
“(My) goal is definitely to be one of the biggest impacts on this offense, being a leader in the receiving corp and just producing as much as I can for this offense,” Duarte said. “I’ve had talks with the coaches about my productivity and it seems as if they are expecting a lot out of me and I don’t want to let them down.”
Bruised and battered
UCLA added two more members to its injury list – one of which occurred away from the field – after freshman linebacker Zach Whitley suffered one of the more bizarre injuries of the spring.
“Zach probably won’t like me saying this but he fell down the stairs today, he took a wrong step, I don’t know what he was doing but his heel slipped off the stairs and he took a stumble, so he’s just got a bruise,” said coach Jim Mora.
Whitley went through stretches and a special teams drill before exiting practice.
Sophomore tackle Caleb Benenoch also left Monday’s practice after hyperextending his knee. Benenoch worked on a stationary bike for the rest of the practice.
Sophomore linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea worked out in shorts and was without the sling he wore after injuring his left arm in practice last Wednesday. All three are expected to return Wednesday.
Redshirt freshman cornerback John Johnson will miss the rest of the spring with a shoulder injury.