Dec. 28, 2011
By Amy Hughes
Most of the country knows UCLA senior wide receiver Nelson Rosario from his appearances on SportsCenter.
Rosario made ESPN's "Top Plays" twice during the 2011 season, first in the Bruins' season-opener with a spectacular catch behind the back of a Houston defender, then a one-handed touchdown grab in the Pac-12 Championship game at Oregon.
UCLA's Interim Head Coach Mike Johnson is intimately familiar with what Rosario has brought to the Bruins' offense, having served as his position coach and UCLA's Offensive Coordinator this season.
"Nelson is a very talented athlete, probably one of the most talented athletes I've ever coached," said Johnson. "He's tall, has tremendous body control, athletic ability and range. He can run, and he can do all the things that you want a wide receiver to do."
Rosario was clearly UCLA's top receiver in 2011, catching 61 passes for 1,106 yards, four touchdowns and averages of 18.1 yards per catch and 85.1 yards per game.
"My role was to be `that guy,'" said Rosario. "Whenever they called my name to make a big play, I came through and delivered."
Rosario played critical roles in the Bruins' most important wins on the season. During UCLA's come-from-behind 28-25 win over Washington State at the Rose Bowl, Rosario collected three catches for 120 yards, including a critical two-point conversion catch to seal the victory.
In the Bruins' 29-28 upset win over then-No. 20 Arizona State, Rosario caught a touchdown pass from Kevin Prince that gave UCLA the lead just after halftime. He finished that game with five catches for 151 yards.
"He was the one guy that, when we had to have big plays against Arizona State or Washington State, he stepped up," said Johnson. "He made big plays to win games for us."
Rosario's consistency in delivering big plays become even more impressive when you realize he was catching passes from two different quarterbacks throughout the season, both Prince and Richard Brehaut.
"It was different," said Rosario of the frequent changes between quarterbacks due to both injuries and performance. "We prepared for that during the off-season. We practiced with both of them and did extra stuff on the side on our own with each quarterback just in case this did happen. The team took it really well. When Brehaut went down (with a broken leg against Washington State), we jumped back in with KP and picked up where we left off."
Johnson has no doubt that his star wide receiver was the proper choice for the Bruins' Offensive MVP for the 2011 season, and he sees a player that has a legitimate chance to play professionally.
"He is a guy that I'm never satisfied with because I always think he has more to give," said Johnson. "That's probably not fair to him. I think he is a very smart guy, and as a coach you like that. He can do a number of different things and has no problem adjusting."
Rosario's UCLA career also included three seasons with the Bruins' track and field team, focusing on the long jump. Some of those skills learned at Drake Stadium have translated to his success on the football field.
"It helped me with my explosion," said Rosario. "The training that I did for track just kept me light on my feet. It helps me on the field to be a faster person and a more explosive person."
As the UCLA portion of his football career winds down, concluding with the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. against Illinois, Rosario has fond memories of his Bruin experience and had to stop and think before offering his favorite moments of the 2011 season.
"I'd have to say our comeback win against Washington State," said Rosario. "Our road win against Oregon State early on really helped us. And I think about how much fun we had at the Pac-12 Championship game, even though we didn't end up winning. As a team, we just had a good time.
"We felt like we could play with [Oregon] no matter what their record was," said Rosario of the Pac-12 Championship. "We put together a game plan, and, for the most part, we executed. The times we didn't, that's when they capitalized and got some points. We played a pretty good game, and we stuck in there longer than most of the nation thought we would. I feel like if we had cut down on some errors we could possibly have won that game."
Rosario was quite surprised by his selection as the team's offensive MVP.
"It means a lot," said Rosario of that honor. "I didn't expect it. Personally, I voted for our center, Kai [Maiava]. I'm very grateful and very blessed."
"He was deserving of that honor," said Johnson. "He was probably the guy that was the most consistent offensive player for us this year."
"He has tremendous character," continued Johnson. "He is a well-rounded person. He respects authority. If you have a daughter, Nelson is the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry. He's a tremendous person, a good teammate, a good player to coach. He has a likeable personality and is a very good person."
Johnson came to UCLA from the NFL, having worked for the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers over a 10-year span, coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers at various times and serving as the offensive coordinator with multiple organizations.
"He'll do well," said Johnson of Rosario's professional prospects. "He will have an opportunity to play pro football at some level. He'll have a chance to compete for a job, and if he competes the way he's capable of and plays to his potential level, he has a very good chance of making a pro football team, but that's going to be on him. He is a guy that is definitely talented enough to play at the next level."
While Rosario does have his eye on a professional football career, his focus is sharply on his final game in a UCLA uniform.
"Right now, I'm focused on this last bowl game, the last game I have with my teammates," said Rosario. "I'm going to try to showcase my talent again and help our team win this game, first and foremost. After that, I'll get with an agent and go train and get ready. If my number is called, if they do invite me [to an NFL scouting combine], I'll go out there and do my best.
"I wouldn't trade it at all," concluded Rosario, speaking of his UCLA experience. "Especially because of all the people I've met and experiences I've been through. It's going to help me further along in life."