PROVO — Neil Pau’u had plenty of reasons to leave BYU after he ran afoul of the school’s honor code last summer and eventually pleaded guilty to an amended charge of impaired driving that caused him to miss the entire 2019 season.

But the junior receiver from Santa Ana, California, said a few weeks ago there were two “huge” reasons why he stayed: head coach Kalani Sitake and his brother, former BYU linebacker Butch Pau’u.

Leaving the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “crosses your mind, for sure,” Neil Pau’u said March 2, speaking publicly for the first time since he was a surprise nonparticipant in last June’s BYU football media day. “But the thought of leaving probably wasn’t as big because my brother told me to stay, and then Kalani was so (supportive). He was probably the biggest reason I ended up staying.”

Pau’u didn’t just disappear, as some players who get in trouble with the law or the code of conduct have done in recent years. He could be seen at many BYU practices and games, and stayed in school to work on his degree.

“I am excited to be back. I know what I can do. I just want to put my best foot forward and show the coaches they can trust me in certain situations and things like that.” — BYU receiver Neil Pau’u

He plans to take spring and summer block classes and hopes to graduate next December with a degree in exercise and wellness and a minor in business.

“That’s my goal,” he said. “So we will see how it goes.”

Pau’u is trying to follow in the footsteps of Jamaal Williams, another BYU offensive star who took an entire year off, then returned and flourished enough to find his way into the NFL.

“You learn what the next step is (after football),” Pau’u said of the ordeal. “A lot of people don’t know what to do outside of football. Hopefully I was able to learn some of that stuff.”

Citing ‘lack of admissible evidence,’ Utah County Attorney declines to prosecute BYU football star Chaz Ah You in DUI case
Utah County Attorney defends decision not to prosecute Chaz Ah You on DUI charges, says BYU football player wasn’t given special treatment

Along with thanking his parents, teammates, coaches and BYU administrators for staying with him and giving him another chance, Pau’u also thanked the owners of First Colony Mortgage, which continued to employ him.

He also thanked the intramural flag football team he joined and the basketball team he played with on Mondays and Thursdays.

Sitting out a year “just makes you learn a lot about yourself,” he said. “I am thankful for a lot of things that I am blessed with, that I may have taken for granted. So, I owe a lot of appreciation to a lot of people.”

BYU canceled its remaining spring practices, its pro day and its spring game last week in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19, and won’t meet again as an entire team until late July. But through its first six practices, Pau’u was emerging as one of the go-to receivers, along with fellow juniors Gunner Romney and Dax Milne.

“I am excited to be back,” he said. “I know what I can do. I just want to put that best foot forward and show the coaches they can trust me in certain situations and things like that.”

A former option quarterback at Servite High, an all-male Roman Catholic college prep high school in Anaheim, California, Pau’u caught 14 passes for 139 yards as a freshman in 2017 and 18 passes for 216 yards as a sophomore in 2018. He caught a 48-yard pass from Zach Wilson in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at the end of the 2018 season and his future appeared bright in 2019.

Then he ran into trouble. He was arrested by a BYU police officer on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol just after midnight on June 8 after he allegedly tried to drive through a barricaded road near the Smith Fieldhouse.

Pau’u said the overall experience was “tough” and “lonely” but also the “biggest learning experience” of his life.

“Outside of football, I was just trying to figure out what I want to do after (football), with God and my spiritual relationships. So there have been some things that have been super, super good for me,” he said.

Pau’u said he’s hoping to become “another good story of redemption at BYU.”

Receivers coach Fesi Sitake said Pau’u stayed in shape and caught a lot of passes during his time away, but his biggest improvement came off the field.

“Just his level of maturity has gone way up,” Fesi Sitake said. “He’s gone through a tough situation and you can only go two ways with something like that. We feel he’s been motivated. As long as he can continue to sustain that level of maturity, he is going to be making a lot of plays because he is a dangerous guy to have to plan for on the defensive side.”

Romney said it didn’t take Pau’u long to shake off the rust.

“He will step in and have a huge role this season,” Romney said. “We are really excited to get him back.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Pau’u missed the first couple of spring practices while his insurance issues were getting straightened out, but made a “noticeable” return before spring camp was cut short.

“He’s a big body, and a great athlete, and runs well, and catches the ball well,” Grimes said. “I think he will certainly be one of our contributing receivers.”

BYU junior receiver Neil Pau’u’s career to date

2017 freshman: Caught 14 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games

2018 sophomore: Caught 18 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown in 13 games

2019 redshirt: Did not appear in any games