Nelson Rosario has already made the top play on SportsCenter, is well ahead of pace to break his career highs in receptions and yardage and leads UCLA in both of those categories by comfortable margins.
Still, there are those who say he is underachieving.
At 6-feet-5, 220 pounds, and with enough speed and leaping ability to double as a long jumper and high jumper for UCLA's track team, Rosario is a matchup nightmare for just about any cornerback in the country. He's proven that so far this season with 23 catches for 360 yards--including a couple of circus catches--yet he probably should have more.
Rosario is big, athletic and sure-handed. He's the go-to guy in just about any situation and thus far has delivered more times than not. But for all his ability, Rosario still hasn't figured out how to make small gains into medium, medium gains into big ones and big ones into touchdowns.
Rosario has yet to master the art of gaining yards after the catch.
"I’m not a little dude that runs around a bunch of people so I'm a pretty big target for guys to take down," Rosario said. "But I'm working on it. I'm trying to get as many yards after catch as I can, I just haven't yet."
The NCAA doesn't keep yards after the catch statistics, nor does the school, but those who carefully dissect the UCLA game films acknowledge that they could be getting more out of their top receiver.
"Sometimes you have to catch those short ones and run with it," said offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, who also coaches the receivers. "You have to get more yards after the catch. So we’ve been talking to him about that and we also have to get him the ball downfield more. It’s all in the plan and we have to make sure we keep finding way to keep him in the game and keep him going."
It's difficult to remember Rosario gaining significant yards after the catch on any reception this season. Many times he catches the ball near the sideline and his momentum takes him out. Other times, he's running hook patterns where he stops and catches the ball in front of a closing defensive back and is hit as soon as he catches it.
There have been low balls that he's had to drop to a knee to catch and therefore can't run. And on the two times where he has gotten behind the defense, he's had to adjust to underthrown balls to make one-handed highlight-reel catches as he's falling to the ground.
One came on a 43-yard reception against San Jose State in which the defender was draped all over him and drew a pass interference penalty. The other more famous catch was a 54-yard reception against Houston that became that day's SportsCenter top play and ended up No. 2 on the SportsCenter top plays for September.
But neither of those included yards after the catch.
"We need him to make plays and be the guy we know he can be," Johnson said. "He’s a matchup problem for a lot of corners with his height and athleticism and we need him to play with more energy and more passion so he can turn those small gains into big ones."
Rosario's 23 catches are nearly double that of Joe Fauria, who is UCLA's second leading receiver with 12. And Rosario's 360 yards are far ahead of Fauria's 196. At his current pace he will easily break his career highs of 42 catches for 723 yards set in 2009 and he's already surpassed the 309 yards receiving he had last year and is on the verge of passing the 29 receptions he had.
But for all of the impressive numbers the senior is putting up, one not-so impressive number stands out: He doesn't have a touchdown this season and has only three in his career. Soem of that goes back to yards after the catch. He had a season-high eight receptions for 83 yards last week at Stanford, but no touchdowns. In 2009 against Washington, he had seven receptions for 111 yards without getting into the end zone.
Rosario is aware that there is always room for improvement.
"The main point is to catch the ball and I've done pretty good at that," he said. "But I'm working on my vision and trying to know which way to make a move and getting my feet going up and down. A lot of times what it comes down to is people grabbing my big feet."
Still, it's not going to keep quarterback Richard Brehaut from seeking out his main target. Rosario has made several clutch possession receptions this season. Of his 23 catches, 15 have gone for first downs and five of those have come on third downs. He has 12 catches for 15 yards or more, including four for 20 yards or more.
"We have a lot of calls where he is kind of our one-on-one matchup," Brehaut said. "If we have Nelson one on one versus anybody, we know he’s going to win. That situation has occurred a lot and I love to have him out there."