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BYU football: Gunner Romney leads the nation in yards per catch. Can he keep it up?

Junior from Chandler, Arizona, worked all offseason to improve his speed and strength, and it paid off against Navy when he caught four passes for 134 yards and a touchdown

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BYU receiver Gunner Romney, shown here during a scrimmage in Provo in 2019, leads the nation in yards per catch and will look to keep it up on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, when the Cougars host Troy at an empty LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

PROVO — Yes, a BYU receiver really leads the country in yards per catch.

The sample size is small, with most teams yet to play this season and others, like BYU, having only played one game. But BYU’s Gunner Romney, not known as a big deep threat his first two seasons in Provo, suddenly stands at the top of the list.

Romney, a junior from Chandler, Arizona, is averaging 33.5 yards per reception, having caught four passes for 134 yards and a touchdown in the Cougars’ 55-3 romp over Navy on Sept. 7. He’s just ahead of Texas’ Brenden Schooler (32.5) and Boston College’s Zay Flowers (32.4).

Can he stay there?

“Hopefully,” Romney said Wednesday night with a slight chuckle. “That would be something. It is unreal to have 34 yards per catch. That would be awesome if I could keep it up. But I am not too focused on stats, just focused on winning games.”

Romney and the No. 18 Cougars (1-0) will try to keep the momentum flowing from that big win over Navy on Saturday when they host Troy — which also has plenty of explosive players — at LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m., ESPN).

BYU announced Tuesday that no fans will be allowed to attend the game, or the Oct. 2 game against Louisiana Tech, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Romney said via Zoom the Cougars will have to generate their own energy, and that begins with him and the rest of the offense.

“That would be something. It is unreal to have 34 yards per catch. That would be awesome if I could keep it up. But I am not too focused on stats, just focused on winning games.” — BYU receiver Gunner Romney

He spent hours and hours in the offseason working on his speed, strength and playmaking ability, and it showed against Navy, especially when he took a short receiver screen pass to the house, breaking tackles and outrunning defensive backs.

“We need a guy to really step up and be that guy for us this year,” he said, noting the losses of star receivers Talon Shumway, Aleva Hifo and Micah Simon to graduation. “That’s something I have really been preparing myself to do, to take that role. That’s something I have been practicing a lot. That’s something I want to do — I want to be the big-play guy, but at the same time I want to be well-rounded with everything. I want to be that short guy, that long guy. I want to be everything.”

So far, so good.

In Annapolis, he was joined by fellow juniors Neil Pau’u (three catches, 38 yards) and Dax Milne (three catches, 35 yards) at the top of the receiving stat sheet.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes wasn’t surprised, saying on his “Coordinators’ Corner” show last Monday that coaches were just waiting for Romney to break out.

“He’s got that potential,” Grimes said. “He’s got good speed, he’s got great height and length and he can high-point the ball and come down with it. Hopefully that was just a preview of many more things to come.”

Romney and Grimes both said it has taken the offense some time to regain its timing and rhythm after only practicing in small groups last week. Grimes called the start of this week “a little bit rusty” for the offense after it put up 580 yards on Navy.

“Last week we weren’t able to operate, working in small groups only, and that had a little more of an impact on our timing than I thought it would,” Grimes said. “But I felt like today we took a good step forward in the right direction and we are looking forward to having another good practice tomorrow and then we will be close to game time.”

Romney has led the way, along with junior quarterback Zach Wilson, fifth in the country in passer rating (206). Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler is No. 1 at 303.3.

“Gunner is a guy that we have always felt like has big-play ability, and in the previous two years has been injured a fair amount, and last year played some and certainly showed flashes of what he could do,” Grimes said. “This was the game that we all felt like he could have. He’s got that big-play potential. I was really pleased that he came up big for us. … For a guy that is kind of a taller, a long-striding type of guy, he is able to change direction. He’s a good all-around athlete.”

Milne and Pau’u are more possession-type receivers, but there are more Romney-types in the fold, Grimes said Wednesday, in freshmen Kody Epps and Keanu Hill and sophomore Brayden Cosper and junior college transfer Chris Jackson.

“I think all those guys are coming along in the right direction,” Grimes said. “… All those guys are progressing and will play some role in the game.”

Grimes said Cosper might be “the most improved guy on our offense” after battling injuries his first two seasons.

“He has really, really worked hard to get himself in good shape,” the coach said. “He is leaner and faster and is playing with an edge right now. He is probably our best blocker at receiver. But he’s also doing a great job running his routes and catching balls. So he has become a really dependable guy for us, and I am really impressed with him.”

Epps battled minor injuries in fall camp and didn’t make the trip to Navy, while Jackson had one catch for 13 yards.

“Keanu Hill has really taken a step forward this week,” Grimes said. “He banged up his knee, maybe three or four weeks ago, and hasn’t been at full speed. This week he is starting to look like he did last year before he got injured.”