Sometimes, Darren Andrews wonders where he might be without all the setbacks.
The middling ratings from high school scouting services that initially led him to commit to Duke.
The season lost to a knee injury that was initially feared to be career-ending.
The three offensive coordinators in as many years.
Would the receiver be leading college football with six touchdown catches in only three games? Would he have developed this kind of chemistry with quarterback Josh Rosen? Would he not only be attending his dream school but having a season that’s the stuff of fantasies?
“Everything worked out good,” Andrews said Tuesday. “I mean, I look back on it as a blessing.”
It’s working out for the fifth-year senior in large part because of all the work he’s put in. Andrews spent part of his summer on the sand, but he was not lounging at the beach. He ran routes with Charlie Collins, a former NFL receivers coach who has gone from tutoring and Steve Smith Sr. to helping Andrews perfect the positioning of his hands, feet and hips. Andrews also sprinted on the track with speed coach Carlos Moore, a world-class sprinter.
Just as beneficial were all the balls he caught from Rosen during a host of player-run practices, developing a familiarity that has carried over to the season. Rosen has targeted Andrews a team-high 32 times, according to footballstudyhall, throwing 23% of his passes toward the speedy receiver with sure hands. Andrews has made 26 catches for 409 yards, second nationally in yardage.
“He’s just playing very confidently,” Bruins receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty said, “going out there expecting to make plays.”
UCLA’s early season highlight footage could be dubbed the Andrews Files. He made a 42-yard touchdown catch against Texas A&M that helped spark the Bruins’ comeback from a 34-point deficit, maintaining his concentration even as the ball slipped through the hands of an Aggies defensive back before reaching him. He added a career-high three touchdown catches against Hawaii the next week.
Then came a 65-yard touchdown catch Saturday against , part of a bonanza in which he caught 10 passes for a career-high 175 yards. What wowed his coaches even more was Andrews making three blocks on the same play to help free tailback Brandon Stephens for a 36-yard run.
“This is a guy that’s all in,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “That demonstrated commitment, that play did.”
Afterward, all Andrews cared about was the catch he didn’t make. It was Rosen’s fourth-down pass with less than a minute to play that was deflected by a Tigers defensive back before it reached Andrews, falling incomplete to dash the Bruins’ comeback hopes.
“I mean, that’s a distraction drill,” Andrews said. “I’ve just got to be able to come up with that.”
His perfectionist nature has driven him to make the athletic director’s honor roll seven times, achieving a 4.0 grade-point average in his final quarter before graduating in June with a degree in political science.
Excellent grades and the speed to zip across the field were a combination that initially led Andrews to commit to Duke after being rated a good but not great prospect at La Puente Bishop Amat High. The knock was always the same.
“It was the size,” said Andrews, who was then 5 feet 10 and 172 pounds. “I was too small. I was a three star, just a whole lot of different things.”
Andrews’ plans changed when he earned a scholarship offer from UCLA a few days after a breakout game against Mission Hills Alemany. Becoming a Bruin meant he could stay home for college.
But he never forgot what being unheralded felt like, ordering a mouthpiece that said “three star.” He also wore an undershirt during games bearing “3” to remind him of how far he had come. He played with an edge that occasionally led to his taunting after big plays.
“You’ve got to harness that just a little bit, not a lot,” Mora said of Andrews’ feistiness, “because we love that.”
There were fears Andrews’ college career was in jeopardy during spring practice in 2014 when he injured the same knee that had sidelined him for the final two games of his freshman season. Andrews called his parents to inform them of the initial prognosis: He might never play football again.
“He cried, I cried,” said his father, also named Darren Andrews. “I couldn’t let him know that I was crying, but I cried after I got off that phone with him and we were telling him it was going to be OK, it was going to be OK.”
Andrews worked his way back for the 2015 season, making his first career touchdown catch on a 70-yard connection with Rosen during a loss at Stanford. Last season, he led the Bruins with 55 catches for 709 yards and four touchdowns.
He viewed it as just a start, intensifying his training during the off-season. He alternated workouts between his private coaches and his teammates to avoid burnout. He modified his diet, eating pre-made meals prepared by his mother, Regenia, consisting of sweet potatoes, chicken and broccoli for breakfast, lunch and dinner while mixing in snacks of beef jerky, cashews and raisins.
“Sometimes I would switch it up and have steak,” Andrews said, “but that was pretty much the core.”
He gained 10 pounds, making his muscular, 195-pound physique more closely resemble that of his father, a former defensive back at Illinois State who had a tryout in the Canadian Football League. He felt faster and stronger, resulting in personal records in the weight room.
Andrews also spent time learning the nuances of not only his team’s playbook under new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, but also the way cornerbacks might try to stop him during sessions with defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin.
“He made a determination,” Mora said, “that he was going to do everything in his power to be great.”
Now Andrews is on the cusp of Bruins greats, needing only 10 more catches to move into 10th place on the school’s career list for receptions. His six touchdowns have already exceeded the five he had over his first three seasons combined.
“It’s no surprise to us because we know what he’s put into it,” Regenia Andrews said. “It’s just like everybody else is finding out what he’s capable of and what he’s done.”
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