In the final four weeks leading up to the kickoff of UCLA football’s 2019 season, Sports editor Sam Connon and staff writer Jack Perez will be taking a look at the Bruins’ outlook at each position. From award favorites to comeback stories, Daily Bruin Sports will analyze each position’s depth chart and make predictions for how their seasons could unfold. Next up – wide receivers.
UCLA football’s wide receivers accounted for 125 receptions in 2018, which ranked dead last in the Pac-12.
With only recent graduate Christian Pabico and his 13 catches gone, the Bruins will have some familiar faces lined up outside the numbers this fall.
Senior wideout Theo Howard will be coach Chip Kelly’s go-to X-receiver one year after catching all 51 of his targets in 2018. Junior Demetric Felton and sophomore Chase Cota reeled in the second and third most catches among Bruin receivers, and they will likely be the top two targets filling the Z-receiver role this season.
Junior Dymond Lee and sophomore Michael Ezeike – who combined for 197 yards on 20 receptions last season – will have the size and experience to find consistent playing time, usually in goal-line and third-down situations. Freshmen newcomers Charles Njoku, Kain Medrano, Hudson Habermehl and Ashton Authement are all 6-foot-2-inches or taller, giving UCLA ample length in the passing game and the ability to line up more explosive athletes at the Y-receiver spot.
Redshirt freshman Kyle Philips is expected to be the team’s leading slot receiver, but Felton and others could get playing time there as well.
Although UCLA will have plenty of options, Howard will likely be an every-down player and get even more targets than he did last year. The sheer depth at Kelly’s disposal will probably limit anyone else from racking up too many snaps, with Howard being the exception.
The Bruins were a run-first team last year, but when they did air it out, it was usually to then-redshirt junior tight end Caleb Wilson.
Wilson left for the NFL in April, and while redshirt juniors Devin Asiasi and Jordan Wilson will replace him at tight end, Kelly will likely need to design his offense around wide receivers this fall.
Then-freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s inexperience and poor pass protection led to a lot of check down attempts in 2018, with 114 receptions belonging to running backs and tight ends. Howard and Felton were the only receivers with over 20 catches.
With another full year to install the offense, expect the Bruin wideouts to be more involved in year two of the Kelly era.
That being said, only two wideouts have ever broken the 50-catch threshold under Kelly – Howard in 2018 and Oregon’s Jeff Maehl in 2009 and 2010.
Howard and Maehl are both 6 feet tall and weigh between 180 to 190 pounds, and since both have the ability to rack up targets, Kelly could use Howard like he used Maehl in Eugene, Oregon. Kelly often lined up Maehl outside the numbers, but used him in screens, cross routes and fades as well as in a jack-of-all-trades role.
Howard did a bit of that in 2018, and he will continue to be Kelly’s reliable Swiss Army knife in 2019. The rest of the wideouts – with all of their depth, size and speed – will likely be utilized as specialists, especially with Kelly’s preference to use running backs and tight ends in the passing game as well.
Kelly’s trademark creative play calling will complicate roles for the UCLA receivers in 2019 after he used a simpler playbook in 2018. Howard will be the de facto X-receiver, while Cota, Lee, Ezeike and others will likely be specialists rather than stat-sheet stuffers.
If Howard can become Kelly’s new Maehl, he could be in for a career year.
Maehl hauled in 53 catches for 696 yards and six touchdowns in his junior year at Oregon – Kelly’s first with the Ducks. Howard caught 51 passes for 677 yards and four touchdowns last year, giving the two very comparable penultimate collegiate seasons.
Maehl wrapped up his Oregon career with 77 catches, 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns in his senior year, and Howard could be in line for similar numbers with Wilson now gone.
Cota and Felton will be the No. 2 and 3 targets in the pass attack, and Cota’s potential could result in him breaking the 30-catch mark. Philips played just four games last season due to concussions, but in making a return as Kelly’s lead slot man, he could take a big step forward as well.
The group of young wideouts have had over 20 months under Kelly, and the returning production – in addition to the physicality of the fresh faces – means UCLA’s wide receivers could take major strides this fall.