What does star pass-catcher Gunner Romney’s surprise return mean for BYU’s receiving corps?
Passing game coordinator and receivers coach Fesi Sitake says the Cougars will have another great group of receivers and tight ends if they can stay healthy next year
One day earlier this month, BYU passing game coordinator and receivers coach Fesi Sitake was preparing for life not only without senior receivers Neil Pau’u and Samson Nacua, but emerging superstar Gunner Romney.
The next day, Romney announced he was returning to BYU for his final season of eligibility — much to the joy of Sitake and Cougar fans everywhere — but rising senior Chris Jackson said he was entering the transfer portal.
“A mixture of emotions,” Sitake said.
“I was thrilled when Gunner said he was coming back. He is someone that was actually on his way out. He was leaning toward leaving, did the whole ‘Senior Day’ deal. And so for awhile I was anticipating him leaving and getting the next guys ready. So when he decided to come back, and let me know, I was very ecstatic. I was super, super happy.” — BYU passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake
Such is the life of a college football coach in this day and age of the transfer portal, COVID-19 giving players an “extra” year, if they want it, and the ever-present lure of the NFL.
Bottom line, said Sitake, cousin of BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, is that the Cougars’ receiving corps in 2022 should be as good, if not better, than it was in 2021. And in 2021, it was pretty special, until Pau’u suffered a lower-leg injury while scoring a touchdown against Idaho State late in the season.
Romney returns to a receivers room that also includes Washington transfer Puka Nacua, fourth-year sophomore Keanu Hill, oft-injured veterans Kody Epps and Brayden Cosper and talented redshirt freshman Chase Roberts.
Walk-ons Kade Moore, Hobbs Nyberg, Talmage Gunther and Tanner Wall are expected to scrap for playing time — in addition to contributing on special teams — and injury-plagued Terence Fall “is someone that has a really high ceiling” if he can stay healthy, Fesi Sitake said.
Devin Downey and Koa Eldredge, members of BYU’s 2020 signing class who are expected to return from church missions this summer, will probably grayshirt this fall and join the team officially at this time next year.
“It is a good group, with a lot of depth,” Sitake said. “There are a lot of guys who bring a lot of things to the table.”
There are also a lot of guys who have been hampered by injuries throughout their careers, including the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Romney, who told the Deseret News on Jan. 5 that he still dreams of playing in the NFL, but is returning because it is “the best decision for me overall” when he weighed all that goes into such a difficult decision.
“Keeping guys healthy is something I am aware of,” Sitake said. “It is part of the business, and I gotta fight to keep these guys healthy, because we saw it last year. Really, every year I have been here. We gotta understand that guys can go down at any time and we gotta be ready.”
Sitake said the leadership and experience that Romney brings back are priceless. The native of Chandler, Arizona, caught 34 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns last year as the Cougars went 10-3, but missed three games with knee injuries. In four seasons, Romney has totaled 117 catches for 1,900 yards and nine touchdowns.
He’s No. 18 on BYU’s all-time receiving yards list, and could theoretically get into the top five with a big year.
“I was thrilled when Gunner said he was coming back,” Sitake said. “He is someone that was actually on his way out. He was leaning toward leaving, did the whole ‘Senior Day’ deal. And so for awhile I was anticipating him leaving and getting the next guys ready. So when he decided to come back, and let me know, I was very ecstatic. I was super, super happy.”
Like Jackson, a senior from Pomona, California, by way of Mt. San Antonio College, tight end Bentley Hanshaw also entered the transfer portal. Hanshaw announced on social media recently he has committed to Liberty.
Defensive back Jacques Wilson is also in the transfer portal.
Sitake said he will miss Jackson, who caught four passes for 39 yards in 2021, but was an outstanding special teams player. But he understands why the receiver entered the portal and he has reached out to friends in the business to vouch for Jackson’s character and ability.
“He loved his time here, but he just wants that opportunity to have a greater impact on a receiver room and set himself up for as good of a chance as he can get at the next level,” Sitake said. “I was fully supportive of him. I don’t want to lose him, for selfish reasons, but this profession isn’t about me.
“It is always tough to lose guys, but it is part of the profession and the business side of things, and I understand,” Sitake concluded.
Sitake said as of the second week of January he is not looking to add any scholarship guys to his room, or get any receivers out of the portal like they did last year when they landed the Nacua brothers, Puka and Samson.
“We are pretty full,” he said. “But you never know when some opportunities are going to present (themselves) to get a special player, at any position.”
The Nacua brothers are special, obviously.
Puka Nacua caught 43 passes for 805 yards and six TDs last fall. He and Romney will form one of the best one-two punches in the country.
Who will emerge as the Cougars’ third starting receiver?
Sitake said the 6-4 Hill, from Bedford, Texas, is a strong candidate.
“Everybody saw him emerge late in the season,” Sitake said. “Really excited about him.”
Injuries and being buried on the depth chart kept the 6-4 Roberts, an American Fork High product, from doing much, but that should change this year.
“Chase Roberts didn’t play a lot, but at the end of the season, he was traveling and practicing with us and was showing great flashes,” Sitake said. “Super excited about him.”
Epps, the prolific receiver from California’s Mater Dei High who played with Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young in high school, is fully healthy after a foot injury and is ready to break out in a big way.
“Kody Epps, being a human being, had his moments where it was a dark place. It hit him. But gosh, that kid is resilient, man. The flip is switched, and he has turned it on in the class room, in the weight room, on the field. He looks great,” Sitake said. “I am super, super excited for him. Fans should be, too. We are lucky to have him. His mentality is awesome right now. He’s very, very resilient young man and I think the fans will see that.”
Cosper, the former Bingham High star who has suffered two season-ending injuries in his time at BYU, is also back to full strength and could be a force.
“We have a lot of depth and talent,” Sitake said. “If we can stay healthy, we will do some good things.”