With the decision of Brett Hundley to return to school for another year, the UCLA Bruins have one of the most talented teams in the entire Pac-12 heading into next season. Behind a talented and experienced offensive line, Hundley is poised for a huge junior season but he will still need some help from his receivers to take the Bruins over the top. When the Bruins get in close to score next season, expect to see Thomas Duarte step up as a red-zone target in 2014.
During his freshman season in 2013, Duarte showed he has a nose for the endzone. He finished third on the team with three touchdown receptions despite catching just 16 passes all year long for 214 yards. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound receiver was an All-American selection out of high school as a tight end. While Noel Mazzone is not a big proponent of the tight end position, UCLA still needs receivers who can go over the middle and make tough catches down near the goal line with a tight end’s mentality and nobody on the roster is better equipped for that than Duarte.
The team is well stocked with talented receivers who can break a game open outside the hash marks with Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien all returning for their junior seasons in 2014 after combining for 100 receptions, 1,250 yards, and seven touchdowns in 2013. But none of them have shown that toughness against tight coverage quite like Duarte has and that could separate the younger receiver from the pack when things get tight near the endzone next fall.
UCLA has plenty of talent to make a run at the Pac-12 title. But how far they go in the conference championship race could depend on the emergence of Thomas Duarte as a legitimate red-zone target for Brett Hundley in 2014.