UCLA's Joseph Fauria the next Gronk?
Last Saturday at the Rose Bowl, UCLA Y receiver Joseph Fauria caught a pass over the middle, shook a defender and turned around to face another Utah defensive back.
Instead of using his 6-foot-7, 255-pound frame to run right over him, he reverted back to his playground days and used a different method to pick up a few extra yards: he leapfrogged him.
Fauria rose up and tumbled over Eric Rowe for the first down and triumphantly thrust the football in the air.
While the Pasadena crowd roared, elsewhere, the acrobatics didn't impress.
Somewhere, Fauria's three uncles, Christian, Lance and Quinn Fauria, all former college football players themselves, were probably cringing.
"All of them hate when I jump over people because they never could do it," Fauria said, with mild sarcasm.
But Fauria says that none of them understand. He respects and values the opinions of his three uncles, two of which also played tight end, but he has between 3-6 inches on all four of them. His length is proving increasingly more bothersome for opposing DBs, forcing them to go low.
"The thing is, times are changing and those are guys that probably didn't have to worry about guys coming up for their legs the whole game," Fauria said. "Being a tall guy, the majority of the guys out there that are tackling me are going to go for my legs. So I'm going to do whatever I can, whenever I can to get those extra yards because every yard matters to me and for this team."
It's a move that while he hasn't quite perfected as much as would like yet, the reactionary skill has been effective. It's obvious that Fauria, whose nickname "Big Joe" is almost somewhat of an understatement, is quite proud of his mobility for someone of his size.
The tight end position has evolved into a role that requires a big-bodied, power player. The demands made from this position have grown to include the ability to catch like a receiver, run like a back and block like a lineman - giving defenders nightmares. The New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski is the current embodiment, a player that can be three positions wrapped up into one, monstrous package.
Fauria could potentially be next on that list of power tight ends. In an offense where like UCLA's that regularly sees up to eight players catching passes in games, some might find it difficult to stand out. Fauria's height alone negates that argument.
After UCLA's upset win against Nebraska in the second week of the season, quarterback Brett Hundley said, "he's so tall, he tells me, 'Even when I'm covered, I'm open. So I just throw to him."
Fauria has managed to catch nearly everything that comes his way, making 19 receptions for 241 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns. The college football world has taken notice, as is evidenced by his recent selection to the Mackey Award Watch list, the award given to college's top tight end.
The mobility, the speed and the hops can be attributed to a past life as a basketball player. Much like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, Fauria has found that the role of a tight end requires more than just a skill set made for turf.
"I definitely attribute some of my football skills to playing basketball in high school and as a kid too," Fauria said. "You've got guys like Jimmy Graham and the ones that started it like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, guys that were dual-sport athletes in college and I wanted to do it, I still love the game of basketball."
After rattling off another dozen or so ways that basketball fundamentals translate on the football field, he talks wistfully about the decision to stick only with football and not pursue two sports in college.
"I did speak with a couple of the basketball coaches a couple years ago telling them I was interested," Fauria said. "The stars didn't align. It would have been cool and I still think maybe I could have contributed but I guess my real destiny was football."
After transferring from Notre Dame, where he played his freshman season, injuries and a bowl game kept Fauria out of Pauley Pavillion. Upon further review, Fauria's basketball skills are noticeable on the field. In the end zone, Fauria assumes a position on a cornerback as if he's boxing them out for a rebound. His footwork and explosiveness off the catch are reminiscent of a power forward's. Even just catching a ball, he says, is much like catching a rebound.
"If a basketball is coming off of a rim you get that rebound at the highest point," Fauria said. "Just like when a pass is coming through the air, you get that catch at the highest point so no one else can get it."
Fauria's ability to move his feet laterally is a skill that is ideal in an offensive system that relies on spreading the ball out laterally.
"There is a tremendous roll over from both sports," Fauria said.
This season, Fauria has found himself under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and his spread system. But Fauria is not a system player, rather a complimentary piece in any system he is put in. Mazzone is his fourth offensive coordinator, and Fauria was able to thrive even in a tumultuous 2011 season, catching 39 passes for 481 yards, good enough for second on the team and broke Marcedes Lewis' school record for a tight end.
He began his collegiate career at Notre Dame, in a system that looked as though it might be a perfect fit.
"You know, it's funny because the position I played that first year at Notre Dame was probably the prototypical offensive that I should be in," Fauria said.
But Fauria was soon on his way back to the West Coast. Eventually it became clear that former head coach Rick Neueheisel's job wasn't so secure, and Fauria was once again left to figure out his role in a new system.
"I've showed my versatility being in a pistol offense, mainly an F-Back kind of guy, and now I'm having a bigger receiver role, "Fauria said. "Going to Notre Dame and coming back here taught me a lot. It showed that not everything happens like you want to coming out of high school."
Having already learned that lesson once, now with the impending end of his college career near, Fauria has enlisted the services of his uncle Christian. A former tight end at Colorado who played 13 years in the NFL, his uncle will be helping to guide him through the world of post-collegiate football.
The Fauria family is a tight one. Fauria lives with his older sister Natalie Lizzarag, who works for CBS' "The Insider." It's not uncommon for Fauria's family to occupy about 30 seats in the Rose Bowl for game days. Mother, brothers, sister, cousins, aunts, and of course, those football playing uncles all included.
While the offense might have been a fit for him at Notre Dame all those years ago, the situation in Los Angeles fits him perfectly.
"We're a really close family. I love my uncles, I've looked up to them since I was a young kid," Fauria said. "It was a blessing in disguise for me to come back here."
But despite the admiration for those uncles, Fauria doesn't plan on heeding their advice when it comes to his vertical.
Is it a signature move, much like Gronkowski's partying and Gonzalez's dunk through the uprights? By this time next year, it just might be.
"Signature?" Fauria mused. "It's more of a reaction… But if I do it more, I can successfully do it."