BYU receivers coach Fesi Sitake has an embarrassment of riches with Nacua brothers transferring in
Utah transfer Samson Nacua and Washington transfer Puka Nacua join an already-deep receivers room that includes 2020 standouts Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u
Back in January, after he was promoted to passing game coordinator and kept his role as receivers coach, BYU’s Fesi Sitake said there was enough returning talent in the Cougars’ receivers room to duplicate what the offense did in 2020.
Then the Nacua brothers transferred in.
Samson Nacua came from the University of Utah with one year of eligibility remaining, while Puka Nacua came from the University of Washington with several years left, but could easily move on to the NFL after just one season in Provo. He’s that good.
So Sitake has an embarrassment of riches on his hands, it would appear. The stakes are higher now. Expectations are soaring for a position group that ordinarily doesn’t get a lot of hype at BYU.
It also means Sitake has some difficult decisions to make when preseason training camp begins in a couple of months.
“Some guys are going to get more reps and opportunities than others,” Sitake told the Deseret News last month. “So that’s going to be the challenge. It’s a good challenge. That’s my job, to bring out the best, through competition.”
In essence, that competition has already started.
Receivers who were on the roster during spring camp, about 15 of them, have been lifting weights, running on their own and participating in player-run practices in the evenings since early April. The Nacua brothers’ transfers from Power Five programs to independent BYU were officially announced on March 31, a few days after spring camp concluded, but they haven’t done a lot with their new teammates, for various reasons.
“Some guys are going to get more reps and opportunities than others. So that’s going to be the challenge. It’s a good challenge. That’s my job, to bring out the best, through competition.” — BYU receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake
Samson is finishing up some academic work at Utah and hasn’t been able to do anything official in terms of using BYU’s facilities until that is completed. He has been participating in the PRPs in the evenings.
Puka is recovering from recent lower-leg surgery that has kept him out of action, but he is attending team meetings.
“They are inclusive. They are both fitting in well,” said senior receiver Neil Pau’u. “They both just want to be there and are excited to help in whatever way that they can. When we have meetings with Fesi (Sitake) and stuff throughout the week here soon, we will be able to see them more and they will be more included.”
At the NFL draft in Cleveland, after quarterback Zach Wilson was taken by the New York Jets with the No. 2 pick, head coach Kalani Sitake told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview that it wouldn’t take long for the Nacua brothers to become instant leaders in the receivers room.
“They come from an amazing family with BYU bloodlines and it is so, so good to have them at BYU,” Kalani Sitake said. “They will add to their great culture of hard work that’s already established here.”
Fesi Sitake said Puka and the Nacuas are “great people” who love football and will compete hard, but won’t expect instant playing time just because they are joining the program with more playing experience than any receivers with the exception of Gunner Romney and Pau’u.
“Both of those guys have great hearts,” Fesi Sitake said on KSL news radio’s “Cougar Sports Saturday” show. “They have been through a lot of adversity in their lives, and it has molded them into the type of guys they are today. They are the type of guys who will always have your back, no matter what.”
Pau’u concurred with his coach, saying the brothers bring a “vibe” and a “swagger,” but also a sense of humility and gratitude.
“We are excited they are here,” Pau’u said.
One of those receivers who established that culture at BYU, former walk-on Dax Milne, is now trying to make Washington’s roster as a seventh-round pick in the NFL.
Both Sitakes said Milne leaves a legacy of hard work and perseverance that won’t be easy to replace. Nor will the former Bingham High star’s numbers in 2020: 70 catches for 1,188 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I am not surprised Dax (was drafted),” Fesi Sitake said. “He was always asking, ‘What can I do better?’”
Before the Nacuas arrived, the focus in Provo was on which 2020 role player would step up and join Romney and Pau’u in the starting lineup. Would it be Chris Jackson, Kody Epps, Keanu Hill, Brayden Cosper or Terence Fall?
Or will returned missionary Chase Roberts make an instant impact after returning from Calgary, Alberta, Canada? Walk-ons Hobbs Nyberg and Talmage Gunther are also showing out well in PRPs, Pau’u said.
Coincidentally, Roberts was the third-ranked prospect from the state of Utah in 2019, according to 247Sports.com. The only guys ahead of him were Puka Nacua and Siaki Ika, who signed with LSU but has transferred to Baylor.
“The bottom line is everyone is going to have an opportunity, and that is not just in fall camp,” Fesi Sitake said. “Heading into summer, that is really where (jobs) will be won. How much they work on their craft in the offseason, when no one is watching, will be important.”
The receivers coach and passing game coordinator said he’s been pleased with what he’s seen so far.
“Guys are mastering the playbook, guys are getting stronger and faster. When fall camp comes, I can really tell who approached the summer with some purpose, and got it. So a lot of (playing time decisions) will take care of themselves.” — Fesi Sitake
“Guys are mastering the playbook, guys are getting stronger and faster,” he said. “When fall camp comes, I can really tell who approached the summer with some purpose, and got it. So a lot of (playing time decisions) will take care of themselves.”
Gunner Romney, who is getting married in July, finished the season with 39 catches for 767 yards and a two touchdowns and probably led the country in coming oh-so-close to touchdowns, despite missing two games due to injury. He was stopped, or made diving catches, inside the 5 at least a half-dozen times.
Pau’u returned from legal troubles that forced him to miss the entire 2019 season with an outstanding year as the No. 3 guy in 2020. The former high school quarterback caught 45 passes for 603 yards and four TDs. He will graduate this month with a degree in exercise and wellness and plans to do some graduate work this fall, which will be his final season at BYU.
In an interview during spring camp last March, Jackson, a junior college transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, said everything will fall into place for the receivers this year, and the best will play. He caught six passes for 22 yards last year.
“Just be reliable,” Jackson said, when asked what it will take for him to get on the field more in 2021. “That’s all there really is. That’s leads into the real world as well. If you are not reliable, you can’t do business with people. So that is really the main thing, just being reliable so coaches can trust you.”
Hill, the highly touted prospect out of Texas three years ago, continues to be plagued by injuries. He caught four passes for 70 yards and a TD last year. Hill’s uncle, Roy Williams, is a former NFL All-Pro receiver.
Jackson said Pau’u and Romney have emerged as leaders, along with the quarterbacks vying to replace Wilson: Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover.
“Leadership won’t be a problem,” Jackson said. “This offense has plenty of leaders to replace (Milne and Wilson).”
Fans are still waiting for Epps to break out, after he caught just five passes for 47 yards. Another freshman last year, Miles Davis, saw time at running back but is listed as a receiver. Davis, from Las Vegas, caught four passes for 43 yards last year.
Cosper, one of Wilson’s friends and roommates, has also struggled with injuries after matriculating to BYU from Bingham with the aforementioned Milne. Cosper caught four passes for 36 yards in 2020. Fall, from France, redshirted last year but has good size (6-3) and hands and is also capable of making the two-deep chart.
Pau’u said Cosper and Hill have looked good this spring, even as Hill tries to drop a few pounds in an attempt to get faster. Jackson is a “smooth operator” with speed to burn, Pau’u said, while noting that Epps and Fall are still injured and haven’t been able to do as much as the others.