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Receiver Thomas Duarte continues to up game with passion, work ethic

Junior receiver Thomas Duarte has been on a mission since the age of four to excel on the football field. In the midst of a career season, Duarte has become one of quarterback Josh Rosen’s go-to receivers. (Aubrey Yeo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Claire Fahy

Oct. 30, 2015 2:03 a.m.

“Thomas Duarte … continues on his mission,” the Pac-12 commentator declared. “The crowd loves it.”

The junior receiver had just caught a 20-yard pass from freshman quarterback Josh Rosen , fended off five Cal defenders and broken three tackles on his 19-yard run to the red zone.

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It was a play that epitomized the willpower and force that has forged Duarte’s path to this point. A strong work ethic and passionate drive define a player who has been shaping the Bruin offense since his freshman year.

“Thomas rises to the occasion, and I think you saw that last week,” said Mater Dei High School football coach Bruce Rollinson, Duarte’s former coach. “In big games, big players show up. Thomas showed up.”

As a rookie two years ago, Duarte stepped up during big games at the end of the season, ending his freshman year with 214 yards and three touchdowns – tying a record for a UCLA true freshman – before moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore.

Over the next two years, Duarte never missed a beat, getting stronger and faster with each season. In 2014, the then-sophomore led the team with an average of 19.29 yards per catch, a Pac-12 best. Duarte is now routinely freshman quarterback Rosen’s go-to receiver and has six touchdowns so far this season, providing an exclamation point on the fact Duarte has shown exponential improvement over the course of his college career.

“If I could bottle that (drive) … then I’d probably be a wealthy man,” Rollinson said. “I think some of it comes from (his) parents providing the opportunities. His parents sacrificed tremendously to put Thomas at Mater Dei.”

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Duarte was an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 selection as a sophomore last season after posting a conference-leading 19.29 yards-per-catch average. The Y receiver was described as “deceptively fast” last year by then-quarterback Brett Hundley, now with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. (Aubrey Yeo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Duarte also credits his parents with introducing him to the sport and setting the tone for his characteristic ambition and hard work.

“My family is always competitive, we’re always competing with each other. When we stepped on the field and we were one of the better players, that’s just how it’s always been,” Duarte said. “Every parent has high hopes for their children, and high expectations, but our parents set harder expectations for us.”

The receiver first stepped foot on the gridiron at the age of four, playing flag football. Since then, he’s barely stepped off, stringing together a successful high school career that saw him become a four-star recruit who was both the No. 8 tight end and No. 29 wide receiver in the country.

“As a younger ninth grader, 10th grader, you already saw the raw athletic talent,” Rollinson said. “But you also saw two other things for a kid of his age – the passion to improve, to hone his skills, train, weight lift, watch video. And the other thing was he’s pretty much a born leader. He’s not a vocal, get-in-your-face type of guy, but he led by example, he set a high bar.”

His family history, commitment and physical strength weren’t always enough to get Duarte the attention he deserved. Growing up in Mater Dei football tradition, Duarte was expected to follow the path of fellow Monarchs Matt Barkley, a Heisman contender, and Matt Leinart, a Heisman winner – both of whom played for USC.

While then-UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel appreciated Duarte’s potential, USC coach Lane Kiffin was slow to offer the receiver. By February of his senior year, Duarte still hadn’t heard from the Trojans after being offered Cal, Oregon and Notre Dame, among others.

“In the recruiting process, I really believe some schools, Pac-12 and nationally, just didn’t see the potential,” Rollinson said. “Yeah, he had a great high school career, but there were still guys that had question marks, primarily about his speed, which fascinated me.”

Regardless of the snub, Duarte threw himself into UCLA football and proved his doubters wrong, especially when it came to his speed.

“The way he can run, he is sort of deceptively fast,” said former UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley in 2014. “The way he can get away from a defensive back and out-jump them … he’s very lengthy with his arms and where you can throw it and where he can go get it at.”

Duarte continues just getting better. Call him slow, he gets faster. Call him weak, he gets stronger. Nothing seems to get in his way for long.

He’s a man on a mission.

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Claire Fahy | Alumna
Fahy joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2013 and contributed until she graduated in 2017. She was the Sports editor for the 2015-2016 academic year and an assistant Sports editor for the 2014-2015 academic year. Fahy spent time on the football, men's basketball, men's water polo, men's volleyball and swim and dive beats.
Fahy joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2013 and contributed until she graduated in 2017. She was the Sports editor for the 2015-2016 academic year and an assistant Sports editor for the 2014-2015 academic year. Fahy spent time on the football, men's basketball, men's water polo, men's volleyball and swim and dive beats.
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