LOS ANGELES -- UCLA coach Jim Mora has finally seen enough of the punt return follies that have plagued his team throughout this season.
Mora said Tuesday that he was trying out more than a half-dozen players at punt returner after several gaffes over the first eight games, including three in the last three.
Steven Manfro has twice tried to catch punts that were over his head and had the ball glance off his body for a fumble. Utah recovered one in the end zone for a touchdown and last week Arizona State recovered at the UCLA 13 and scored a touchdown two plays later. The week before, Manfro called for a fair catch but did not alert his punt return team about a short punt and a teammate ran into him, leading to another fumble.
"He’s just had a couple of games here where it hasn’t gone well and I just feel like for his psyche and for our team it’s best to just give him a little break," Mora said of replacing Manfro. "I have no doubt that at some point in his career he'll come back and be a great punt returner for us."
Manfro, a freshman, has returned 15 punts this season and has averaged 8.8 yards per return. He will remain a key cog in the offense at slot receiver as he is second on the team with 26 receptions, but those special teams gaffes have precipitated a change. The week after the Utah game, Manfro acknowledged needing to be more aware of his position when fielding punts. He said his only focus has been catching the ball and wasn't realizing that he was drifting backwards and trying to make a difficult catch.
"When the punt is in the air, I’m only focused on the ball," he said. "I need to get into my routine being more aware of where I am on the field."
He'll have some time to work at it, but it might not be easy to find a suitable replacement. Damien Thigpen looked shaky in replacing Manfro last week. Thigpen did not call for a fair catch on one punt then let the punt bounce and watched it roll inside the five for a 73-yard punt. Later, he made an adventurous grab of a high punt. Devin Fuller also got a shot, but dropped a before quickly falling on the ball to avoid losing the fumble.
Others who were getting a tryout Tuesday included Andrew Abbott, who has played at punt returner this season and Randall Goforth and Ahmad Harris, freshmen who were dynamic return men in high school. Safety Tevin McDonald was also trying out as were sure-handed receivers Shaq Evans and Jordan Payton.
"We have not decided who is going to return punts for us," Mora said.