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‘Deepest receiving corps since I’ve been here’: How BYU turned a weakness into a strength

Receivers coach Fesi Sitake is bullish on his group of young receivers, led by returnees Gunner Romney, Dax Milne and Neil Pau’u and hotshot freshman Kody Epps

BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney prepares to catch a pass during practice on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.
Courtesy BYU Athletics

PROVO — By all accounts, everyone associated with BYU’s football program wants a season for the Cougars this fall, starting with the Labor Day showdown (Sept. 7) against the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Receivers coach Fesi Sitake is at the top of that list, for good reason. What was supposed to be a weakness for the BYU offense this season — a young and inexperienced group of receivers — is blossoming into a strength, the former Weber State offensive coordinator believes.

“This is the deepest corps of receivers I have had since I have been here in terms of depth, talent, playmaking ability, all that stuff,” Sitake said last week. “The No. 1 thing that sticks out is these guys’ mentality. They are blocking their butts off, making plays away from the ball.”

It would be a shame if the unit doesn’t get to show what it can do — but that’s the dilemma the independent Cougars face every time they walk out onto the practice field as the only college football team in the Western United States still preparing for a season.

As of Tuesday morning, BYU had five games on its 2020 schedule, having reportedly added Army on Sept. 19 on Monday.

“The message is this, at least to my group: enjoy every moment you are in, and don’t look too far ahead, and just be grateful to just be able to practice today,” said Sitake, who is head coach Kalani Sitake’s cousin.

Fesi Sitake isn’t the only coach heaping praise on a unit that looked to be in trouble last winter after losing three standouts — Aleva Hifo, Talon Shumway and Micah Simon — to graduation. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick have had positive things to say about them as well.

“It is a good thing, too, because we are in a position where we need some guys to step up there,” Grimes said.

That need notwithstanding, it isn’t like the cupboard was totally bare. Junior Gunner Romney returns after making 31 catches for 377 yards and two touchdowns in 2019, along with fellow junior Dax Milne (21 catches, 285 yards) and Neil Pau’u who redshirted last year after getting into legal trouble last summer.

Romney, who packed on about 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, was slowed by a soft tissue injury at the beginning of camp on Aug. 4, but has seemingly recovered.

“I am back, full go, 100%,” Romney said Monday. “I am feeling really good.”

So is Milne, who has slowly risen up the depth chart after starting his career as a preferred walk-on.

“Us three (veterans) bounce back and forth, outside and inside,” Milne said. “But currently it has been Gunner and me on the outside, Neil on the inside. The main three are Gunner, me and Neil.”

Pau’u, a former high school quarterback, brings 355 career receiving yards into his junior season hoping for a turnaround like other troubled players such as Jamaal Williams and Sione Takitaki were able to engineer after taking a year off.

“I am excited,” Pau’u said. “I feel like I have been waiting for this for a long time.”

Other receivers who saw limited action last year or have been in the program for a couple years include redshirt freshman Keanu Hill, oft-injured sophomore Brayden Cosper and redshirt freshman walk-on Tevita Ika.

“Guys usually have a lot of energy and juice the first couple of practices,” but the effort and enthusiasm has been consistent, over and over and over,” Fesi Sitake said. “The expectation in that room keeps raising. That’s a credit to the leadership of all the guys in that room.”

Then there are the newcomers, perhaps the most-anticipated additions at receiver in the past 10 years at BYU. It starts with No. 0, Los Angeles standout Kody Epps, who set school records at Mater Dei High with 93 catches for 1,735 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior.

“It is kinda weird seeing the No. 0 out there, kind of awkward,” Romney said. “But I think it is really cool and a cool thing for Kody to be the first dude to have that. And he will probably keep that for most of his career. … I am really excited for his career here.”

Miles Davis of Las Vegas, Terence Fall of Paris, France, by way of San Bernardino, California, and junior college transfer Chris Jackson (Mount San Antonio) College could also have immediate impacts, Sitake said.

“Kody Epps has made incredible leaps. He has proven that he can pick up a playbook. He looks like a veteran out here in terms of his knowledge of the playbook,” Sitake said. “Miles Davis is as explosive of a receiver as I have seen.”

Pau’u, who is from Southern California, said Epps is the real deal.

“What he did at Mater Dei, he has been able to show here already at BYU,” Pau’u said. “Chris Jackson is dynamic as well. We are lucky to have all the new guys here.”

Sitake said Fall has also battled a “little bit of an injury” and will be back soon.

“And then Chris Jackson, as far as a newcomer, is what we expected,” Sitake said. “Really tough, tenacious player, super fast. Big playmaker, and he is picking up the offense very well.”

Former Lone Peak quarterback Talmage Gunther is back from a church mission to Zimbabwe as a preferred walk-on receiver and could work into the rotation, along with Hill, Cosper and Ika, Sitake said.

“It is a good problem to have,” Sitake said. “There are a lot of guys to pick from, as opposed to being pretty thin.”