UCLA receiver Kenneth Walker cut across the field, leaving cornerback Adarius Pickett in his wake Thursday. He snagged a pass and cruised into the end zone.
This was good medicine.
Walker was concerned at times last fall, worrying about his future. He spent the season on the sideline after back surgery in June.
“For a while, I was depressed,” he said. “I thought I was going to get lost in the shuffle. We only had one receiver leave. Everyone else was back and played. I was starting all over. Basically, I’m a freshman again.”
Walker continues to work through his concerns.
UCLA’s top returners are Devin Fuller (43 receptions, 471 yards, four touchdowns) and Jordan Payton (38 receptions, 440 yards, one touchdown). Devin Lucien finished the season with a flurry, with 10 receptions for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the last five games.
Eldridge Massington and Mossi Johnson, who sat out their freshman seasons because of knee injuries, have been impressive through the first two weeks of spring practice.
But Walker brings the Bruins something they need.
That was on display Wednesday when Walker glided past cornerback Marcus Rios — no slow-poke himself — and hauled in a long pass from Brett Hundley.
“What he has is pure, unadulterated speed,” receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “I don’t have a whole bunch of that on this team, so he is going to give that over-the-top threat.”
There remains some massaging that needs to be done to Walker’s game.
“He’s a track star,” Yarber said. “He’s used to running high. He’s learning how to lower his center of gravity.”
But Walker is fast. He was a track star at Richmond (Calif.) Kennedy High, reaching state finalists in the 110- and 300- meter hurdles as a sophomore, junior and senior.
His freshman year was a learning experience. He had 11 receptions for 87 yards in 2012. He averaged 19.7 yards on seven kickoff returns.
Before Walker could blossom, he learned last June his sore back would require surgery. That led to a season of uncertainty.
“Seeing my teammates working so hard was a struggle,” Walker said.
Being cleared for individual workouts midseason help only a little. So Yarder kept close tabs on the young player.
“He’s one where if he is not involved, he gets a little down,” Yarber said. “I kept him in the meetings. I asked him questions, made sure he knew the coverage we’re facing even thought he wasn’t playing.”
Yarber acknowledged, “The fact he missed last year kind of stunted his growth a little bit.”
Walker is happy to just get the chance to grow again. “It was a long process, but it all ended well,” Walker said. “I’m back on the field.”
Y-back Thomas Duarte showed flashes of ability as a freshman last season. Those moments have become a day-in, day-out thing this spring.
Duarte had three quality catches Thursday, one a tipped pass he grabbed in the end zone.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has noticed a connection between Duarte and Hundley.
“No matter how good they are or how good they think they are, it’s the me-to-you factor that Brett has with them,” Mazzone said. “I can love the hell out of them, but if Brett doesn’t like them, he’s not going to throw them the football.”
Cornerback John Johnson left practice because of what appeared to be a wrist injury. He landed on his right arm while attempting to make a tackle. … Receiver Devin Fuller was held out of practice a second day because of a sore back. He is expect to return next week … Defensive lineman Ellis McCarthy had a strong practice. “He has really learned to use his hands,” defensive line coach Angus McClure said. “You saw that today.”