BYU receiver Neil Pau’u got a second chance last season — and made the most of it
After pleading guilty to an amended charge of impaired driving in 2019 that caused him to miss the entire season, Neil Pau’u rebounded in 2020 to become a star for the 11-1 Cougars
Two summers ago, BYU receiver Neil Pau’u could not have been in worse place, in his mind.
This summer, few players in college football are in a better one.
The senior is coming off a stellar junior season in which he caught 45 passes for 603 yards and four touchdowns and helped the Cougars go 11-1 and attain a No. 11 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.
That was remarkable, considering Pau’u was forced to miss the entire 2019 season for disciplinary and personal reasons. As has been widely reported, Pau’u was arrested on suspicion of DUI by a BYU police officer on June 8, 2019, after he allegedly tried to drive through a barricaded road near the Smith Fieldhouse on campus.
He eventually pleaded guilty to an amended charge of impaired driving and BYU went without one of its most promising receivers that fall. In 2018, the Santa Ana, California, product was just starting to blossom for the Cougars, catching 18 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown while playing behind stars such as Aleva Hifo, Talon Shumway and Micah Simon.
Gunner Romney and Dax Milne, who became bona fide stars in 2020, were also in that mix. Like Pau’u, Romney returns in 2021 looking to become the go-to guy for whichever quarterback wins the starting spot — Baylor Romney, Jaren Hall and Jacob Conover are the final contestants, coach Kalani Sitake said on June 7 — and help lead a BYU offense trying to replace Zach Wilson and Milne, who turned pro a year early and was drafted by the Washington Football Team.
Pau’u could already be considered a winner. He got a second chance, and he’s making the most of it. He’s gone from a troubled player with legal issues and questions about his attitude to a team leader that everyone on the team looks up to, Sitake said.
“I am so proud of him. He has done everything the right way, and a lot of that has to do with accountability. His facing consequences for his actions and then finding ways to overcome them have been really admirable. And he has found ways to serve others,” Sitake said.
At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Pau’u has NFL receiver size, and he plans to turn pro after the 2021 season, even though technically he could use the NCAA’s “extra year” allowance due to COVID-19.
Pau’u said he’s working on his speed — which might require him to drop a few pounds — in order to impress scouts at pro day next March.
His route running prowess, athleticism and sticky hands are not in question. Pau’u was a quarterback at Servite High in Anaheim, California, and has also shown the ability to throw the ball downfield in gadget plays and the like.
“What I appreciate about him is that since his issues he serves his teammates and looks out for them,” Sitake said. “And he’s also serving people in the community. He is always looking for ways to make other peoples lives better and in return that has helped him out a lot.”
Pau’u’s first game back after the lengthy layoff didn’t start well. He stumbled on a route against Navy that resulted in one of only three interceptions thrown by Wilson last year.
But he quickly regained Wilson’s trust by catching three passes for 38 yards that night in Annapolis, Maryland.
“Right now I am just trying to lead out. I’m trying to be a good leader off the field, and pick up my speed a little bit on the field. So far, everything has gone super well.” — BYU wide receiver Neil Pau’u
“Right now I am just trying to lead out,” Pau’u said last week. “I’m trying to be a good leader off the field, and pick up my speed a little bit on the field. So far, everything has gone super well.”
Sitake said he had confidence in Pau’u’s abilities when he offered him a preferred walk-on spot in 2017 after Pau’u returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. Pau’u, the younger brother of former standout BYU linebacker Butch Pau’u, caught 14 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns his freshman year, including a 28-yard TD catch in his college debut, against Portland State.
“On the field, he has done a lot, and really improved his game year to year,” Sitake said. “I am just really proud of the growth we’ve seen from him. We are also really proud of his leadership and his ability to lead this team and serve as an example for the younger guys.”
Sitake encourages his players to try new things and do some internships in the summer to prepare for life after football. Pau’u, who graduates this month with a degree in exercise and wellness, has been working at First Colony Mortgage in Orem in his spare time.
He plans to get his real estate license this fall.
“Football can be really taxing and in some ways can get stale,” Sitake said. “I think as long as they train and get really busy, rather than sitting around, I think that is going to be really helpful for their progression and in the next phase of their lives.”
Another task Pau’u has undertaken has been to welcome the Nacua brothers — Utah’s Samson and Washington’s Puka — into the receivers room. Making room for the transfers from Power Five schools could seriously cut into Pau’u’s playing time, but he’s not worried about that.
“It is all about making the team better, and these guys will definitely make the team better,” Pau’u said.
BYU’s receivers, tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks get together two or three times a week to throw the football around and work on chemistry, Pau’u said.
Asked for a scouting report on which receivers have stood out, he mentioned former Bingham High star Brayden Cosper, junior college transfer Chris Jackson and a pair of walk-ons, Talmage Gunther and Hobbs Nyberg.
“Cosper has found a rhythm that he hasn’t had at BYU because he got injured, with two ACL tears,” Pau’u said. “He knows the playbook. He looks good in one-on-ones. He understands the playbook in its entirety instead of just his position and his routes. He just brings some savviness and some smoothness with him.”
Pau’u said Jackson is a “smooth character” who is speedy and had come a long ways in his knowledge of the playbook.
Gunther, a former prep quarterback at Lone Peak, “is just a solid guy who can get anything done — blocking, passing, receiving. You just put him out there, and he is reliable. He knows what he is supposed to do.”
Pau’u said they haven’t seen much of Kody Epps or Terence Fall because they’ve been injured. Keanu Hill is trying to lose some weight to increase his speed and has been successful thus far in that endeavor.
Former Lehi star Kade Moore, a walk-on, is also on the rise.
“He is a quick, twitchy guy who does all he can to help the team,” Pau’u said.
Gunther is the only married guy in the receivers room, but that will change in July because Gunner Romney is engaged with mid-summer wedding plans.
“We are a really tight group,” Pau’u said. “We love each other and we support each other no matter what.”
Especially when that support means giving out second chances.