BYU receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake gets right to the point when asked about the depth and talent at receiver on the Cougars’ 2023 football team.

“This is the deepest receivers group I have ever had here in my six years at BYU, because of the quality of talent. We have obviously had some great receivers since 2018, like Puka (Nacua) and Dax (Milne) and other really good individual players. But I have never had the depth like this in my time here.” — BYU receivers coach Fesi Sitake

“This is the deepest receivers group I have ever had here in my six years at BYU, because of the quality of talent,” Sitake said last Friday. “We have obviously had some great receivers since 2018, like Puka (Nacua) and Dax (Milne) and other really good individual players. But I have never had the depth like this in my time here.”

Sitake said the obvious reasons for the increased depth are the additions of UConn’s Keelan Marion and Eastern Michigan’s Darius Lassiter from the transfer portal. Also, returning guys such as Kody Epps, Keanu Hill and Chase Roberts — the “Big Three,” as it were — have simply improved.

Throw in experienced special teams stalwarts like Hobbs Nyberg and Talmage Gunther and four “exciting” new players in Parker Kingston, Dom Henry, Koa Eldredge and JoJo Phillips, and Sitake’s somewhat bold statements ring true.

“I am really happy with the group. I was before, but the addition of those two transfers has been awesome,” Sitake said. “You could tell in (the first) four practices that those guys are going to be really good players, make a lot of plays for us. They are picking up the playbook really well. They are playing with really good intensity.

“You can tell they love football, and there is nowhere else they would rather be than where their feet are at when they are practicing,” Sitake continued. “That is easy to say sometimes, but it is refreshing to see. So, really happy with Darius and Keelan and just the group overall. Receiving corps looks really good.”

Sitake has broken the group down into two tiers a week into preseason training camp. He’s got Epps, Roberts, Hill, Kingston and the two newcomers — Marion and Lassiter — in the first tier, with a pecking order yet to be defined.

BYU pass game coordinator coach Fesi Sitake.
BYU receivers coach Fesi Sitake | BYU Photo

“The transfers are right there with (the Big Three),” Sitake said. “They are playing with the ones, and they fit in. It has been a seamless transition for them. So I definitely have them in that first tier group of guys that I plan to play.”

Sitake said there are a lot of variables in putting together a two-deep chart of receivers, such as how the players look during the week, the game plan and the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

“There might be times when they all play the same amount,” he said. “Those are the first six guys right now, clearly, and as fall camp goes along, we will see if that changes.”

Kickoff and punt returners Nyberg and Gunther head up the second tier, and are joined by Henry, Eldredge and Phillips.

Henry turned a lot of heads in spring camp; Phillips was one of the gems of BYU’s 2023 signing class, a three-star athlete from Lancaster, California, who prepped at Sierra Canyon High.

“Those would be the next five or who are right there, knocking at the door, who have done a lot of really good things,” he said. “That could change and they could move (up). But right now, as it stands, those would be my tier-two guys.”

Other receivers on the fall camp roster are freshmen Devin Downing and Jake Hill and redshirt sophomore Kade Moore, who has made some nice plays in camp.

Among the top-tier guys, Epps had 39 catches for 459 yards and six touchdowns in eight games before an injury cut short his season in 2022. Hill had 36 catches for 572 yards and seven scores, while Roberts had 22 catches for 357 yards and three TDs.

Of course, Epps entered the transfer portal on April 30, only to withdraw his name and return to BYU on May 3. Few were more thankful for the star receiver’s return than Sitake.

“Yeah, for sure. I mean, I love all my guys, obviously, and Kody is right there. He definitely has become like a son, or a little brother, whatever you want to call it,” Sitake said. “That one hurt, especially under the circumstances where it was really unexpected.”

Sitake declined to go into details on why he thought Epps went into the portal, only saying that there was a lot that went into it.

“I am just really grateful that he is here. He has done a great job of keeping the friendships and the relationships that he has, and keeping the leadership role that he has and I am excited to see what he can do this fall,” Sitake said.

Because both Marion and Lassiter had other options, the fact that they picked BYU with no strong ties to the program made Sitake a happy camper.

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“There are a lot of misconceived notions about BYU as an institution. So for them to come out here on campus and see for themselves what we are about was huge,” Sitake said. “To hear them in their exit interviews talk about their surprise and see the complete change of heart they had after looking for themselves and kicking the tires and looking under the hood, was gratifying.”

Lassiter and Marion became roommates, along with tight end Ray Paulo and freshman running back LJ Martin.

Here’s more on how the two transfers landed at BYU:

Darius Lassiter reunites with junior college friend

After prepping in Arizona and Kansas, Lassiter was at Butler (Kansas) Community College for three years and played in 17 games for the Grizzlies, recording 51 catches for 18.1 yards per reception.

He caught 40 passes for 471 yards and four touchdowns last year at Eastern Michigan and was considered a key cog for the Eagles. However, after spring ball in March and April, he hit the transfer portal because EMU had lost a lot of starters, including its quarterback, “and the offense was a little shaky there,” he said.

Eastern Michigan wide receiver Darius Lassiter catches the ball over top of San Jose State cornerback Nehemiah Shelton (23) for a touchdown in the 2022 Idaho Potato Bowl. The transfer to BYU has made a good impression during fall camp. | Steve Conner, Associated Press

“We had the pieces, but it just wasn’t clicking during spring ball, so I felt like it was the right decision for me and my progress to go up to the next level,” he said.

Lassiter and former Oklahoma State offensive lineman Caleb Etienne, who committed to BYU on April 17, became friends when both were at Butler CC. A couple days after BYU landed Etienne, Lassiter hit the portal and BYU was the first school to reach out.

“As soon as Caleb told me he was going to BYU, I told him, ‘If I get the offer, I most definitely will be interested and see what they have to offer,’” Lassiter said.

Growing up in Chandler, Arizona, Lassiter became familiar with BYU because former BYU receiver Gunner Romney and QB Jacob Conover played for a rival high school and he followed their careers when he went to Butler.

“I knew a lot of (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and learned more about the church before I committed,” he said. “It didn’t really faze me. I am able to adapt to all situations.”

That includes living BYU’s honor code, he acknowledged.

“Anything that will help the team succeed and win, I am willing to do,” he said. “I am willing to cut back on the things that I am used to doing just to be able to put the team in a position to shine.”

Lassiter said a little homework and a conversation with new BYU QB Kedon Slovis was all it took to commit to BYU over several other suitors.

“It just felt like the right spot for me,” he said. “I would like a big role and be somebody that they can depend on to know what is going on. I want to be able to make that play when we really need it.”

Lassiter, 6-foot-3, 200, has two years of eligibility remaining but hasn’t decided yet whether he will stick around for one season, or two.

UConn transfer Keelan Marion shooting for the moon

Marion’s first contact with someone from BYU wasn’t a coach. It was transfer running back Aidan Robbins. They are “friends from back home in Georgia,” Marion said, and when Marion told Robbins he was looking to leave UConn, the Louisville and UNLV transfer alerted BYU’s coaching staff.

Marion led UConn in receiving as a freshman, but sustained a fractured collarbone in the 2022 opener against Utah State last year and was forced to sit out the remainder of the season.

Connecticut wide receiver Keelan Marion looks to the quarterback during game against Utah State, in Logan, Utah. Marion, a friend of Cougars running back Aidan Robbins, transferred to BYU in the offseason. | Tyler Tate, Associated Press

“UConn was full of great guys, (had a) great coaching staff, great atmosphere, but I also felt like I just needed a change,” he said. “I always wanted to compete with the best coming out of high school. … I talked it up with my parents, and decided to enter the portal. God just blessed me with some options and this was the best one.”

Marion committed to East Carolina (Michigan State and UCF also expressed interest) and was seemingly headed to Greenville before having a change of heart.

“I feel like I had made a decision too fast. I talked it over with my parents and I knew where I really wanted to be, but I just made a decision out of just nerves,” he said. “That’s when I took it upon myself and talked it up to my parents and told them I am heading out to BYU.”

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Marion said he was impressed that Fesi Sitake called to congratulate him after he committed to East Carolina, and he didn’t forget that kind gesture when he withdrew his pledge from the Pirates.

“There was never any bad blood or anything,” Marion said. “And once I decommitted, he reached out and it went from there.”

Marion arrived in Provo in early June and moved in with Lassiter and the others. He’s a junior in the classroom, but a sophomore in eligibility with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

“I am ready to roll,” he said. “I am ready for LaVell.”

BYU wide receiver Chase Roberts runs after a catch against Oregon at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
BYU wide receiver Chase Roberts runs after a catch at Autzen Stadium during a game against Oregon in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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