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BYU’s receivers are exceeding expectations, notwithstanding a few costly drops in Washington loss

Led by seniors Micah Simon, Aleva Hifo and Talon Shumway, BYU’s receivers have mostly shined and are a big reason why the Cougars knocked off Tennessee and USC.

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Micah Simon (13) looks to make a long catch setting up the game-tying field goal as BYU and Tennessee play a game in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. BYU won 29-26 in double overtime.
BYU wide receiver Micah Simon (13) looks to make a long catch setting up the game-tying field goal as BYU and Tennessee play a game in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. BYU won 29-26 in double overtime.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — A few passes glanced off their fingertips that could have been caught with superhuman efforts, but BYU’s pass-catchers played the first three games of the 2019 season without having a memorable drop.

Then Washington happened.

BYU’s receivers, who were having a fantastic season prior to Saturday’s deflating 45-19 loss to the No. 22 Huskies, dropped several passes that probably should have been caught, most notably Talon Shumway’s miscue in the first quarter that would have been a big gainer, perhaps even a touchdown, if the senior had held on to the ball. A few plays later, quarterback Zach Wilson was stripped of the ball and UW’s Brandon Wellington returned the fumble 69 yards for a touchdown to give the Huskies a 21-3 lead.

“No one wanted to catch a pass more than him,” offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Monday on his Coordinators Corner show, noting the “three or four” drops. “A couple of throws could have been a little bit better placed. … I think it was a combination of things. But we did not come down with the ball as consistently as we had to this point.”

Another glaring mistake by a receiver came on BYU’s first possession of the second half when Dax Milne caught an 8-yard pass on third-and-4, but lost the ball at midfield. Three plays later, UW’s Jacob Eason threw a pretty 35-yard touchdown strike to Andre Baccellia.

Game over.

“We have made some strides in some areas,” senior receiver Micah Simon said Monday, responding to a question about the offense’s progress. “We definitely took a step back this past game. We have to get in the film room and correct them and learn from them, and be ready to go. … It is just execution, dropped passes, things like that.”

Of course, it should be noted that Simon, Shumway and Milne made game-winning plays and/or touchdown catches in the wins over Tennessee and USC. Without their heroics, the Cougars could easily be 0-4 instead of 2-2.

So BYU’s receivers, much-maligned in 2018, are performing well above expectations through four games, last Saturday’s hiccups notwithstanding.

Grimes said last week that two factors have propelled the receivers to a strong start.

“First, they are being coached really well,” he said. “Fesi (Sitake) is doing a great job with the guys. They move all around. He is able to put them in a variety of positions, which a lot of receivers (coaches) aren’t able to do.”

Grimes said the second major contributor to their success is their work ethic. “Those guys show up every single day and work incredibly hard,” he said. “We have a lot of older guys with experience, and it is showing up.”

Grimes said receivers are blocking downfield exceptionally well, most notably Shumway and Simon.

“Talon Shumway is one of the toughest guys on our team,” Grimes said. “We ask him do to a lot of dirty work, come in the box and crack a linebacker, things like that. And he is more than willing to do it, and certainly capable.”

In an interview last week for this article, Shumway said the receivers ignore all the “outside noise” and just focus on their craft.

“There are always going to be people with opinions, even week to week,” he said, somewhat prophetically. “And no matter how well or poorly we do, that is going to continue. We just don’t care, honestly.”

However, Milne, the sophomore and former walk-on from Bingham who caught a 30-yard touchdown pass against USC, said last week that the receivers are motivated by the disrespect they got last year.

“I just remember hearing a lot of people doubt us as playmakers on the receiving side,” he said. “And for me, I know I took it personally and wanted to show everyone that we don’t need to be like five-star recruits to make plays like this. So yeah, for sure, that motivated us.”

Shumway, who caught a 14-yard touchdown pass in the first overtime against Tennessee, said it is “more of a drive to be as good as we can be” than anything else.

“So yeah, I guess if that would define us as having chip on our shoulder, then yeah, sure,” he said.

Simon, fellow senior Aleva Hifo and junior Matt Bushman, a tight end who often lines up as a receiver, are tied for the team lead with 15 receptions apiece. Sophomore Gunner Romney has 11 catches, Milne has eight and Shumway seven. Simon’s 232 receiving yards leads the team.

“Some hard-working dudes, man,” said Wilson. “A lot of people doubt the receivers we have at BYU and say we haven’t been able to get it going recruiting at the receiver position. So a lot of these guys have a lot of talent, but they also have a chip on their shoulder to prove a lot of people wrong. And so it is good to have that in the receiver room.”

Sitake, the receivers coach, said last week he’s not surprised at the success one-third of the way through the season.

“It is just a credit to them, to their buy-in,” he said. “I am happy with their performance, but I am not surprised. I knew they would be able to exceed other people’s expectations.”

Sitake said after the USC win that the perception exists that BYU receivers can’t get off the line of scrimmage and can’t get open against man-press defense, but the film shows otherwise.

“I have been really happy with their ability to get off man coverage,” he said. “We tell them to ignore the noise. They know that they are able to get open against anyone that is in front of them. That’s been a positive sign.”

Cougars on the air

BYU (2-2) at Toledo (2-1)

Glass Bowl, Toledo, Ohio

Saturday, 10 a.m. (MDT)

TV: ESPN Plus (subscription)

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM