UCLA wide receiver Thomas Duarte (18) runs a play during the Bruins’ Sept. 21 game against New Mexico, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Duarte has announced that he will forgo his senior season and make himself available in the upcoming NFL draft. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Thomas Duarte, the junior UCLA wide receiver and former Mater Dei high star, has set his sights on the professional ranks, opting to forgo his senior season with the Bruins and enter the 2016 NFL draft.

Duarte’s father, Tim, broke the news to The Orange County Register on Jan. 12, and Duarte himself confirmed the decision on Twitter.

“For the past few weeks I have had many conversations with my family regarding my future,” Duarte wrote about his decision. “I want to thank my coaches for pushing me and challenging me, not only to be the best player I could on the field, but [to] be the best man I could off the field. Also, for giving me this opportunity to play for such a prestigious university.”

Duarte and UCLA senior teammate Jordan Payton were the favorite targets of sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen, whose passes were directed at the two receivers more than 40 percent of the time.

Duarte had 53 receptions and 10 touchdowns for the Bruins last season.

Tim Duarte said his son filed his NFL paperwork on Jan. 11, after receiving a third-round rating from the league’s draft advisory committee.

The elder Duarte also told The Register that the loss of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to Texas A&M was a major deciding factor.

Six UCLA underclassmen have opted to leave school early and try for a professional career with the NFL.

As of last Friday, CBS Sports had the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Duarte ranked No. 22 on its list of top wide receiver draft prospects.

The 2016 NFL draft will be held April 28-30, in a location to be determined.

“As I am excited for what my future holds, I am sad to leave my brothers, coaches, and the wonderful fans,” Duarte wrote in his post. “I would like to say thank you again to anyone who has played a part in helping me along the way. It has meant the world to me and I could never repay you for that.”

It’s no stretch to say that the NFL has been on Duarte’s radar from some time. In a 2013 Rafu Shimpo interview, he told editor Gwen Muranaka that the pros were certainly a goal of his.

“I’ve thought about getting a shot at the NFL, with Coach [Jim] Mora there and all the NFL experience they have on the coaching staff,” he explained. “It just opens your eyes to how close your goal can be.”

Thomas Duarte posed with parents Tim and Debbie for a Rafu Shimpo feature story. Mom, a UCLA alum, played tennis, basketball and softball, while Dad was a standout in both football and baseball. The UCLA wide receiver will skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

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